If you see Frisco mayor Jeff Cheney this week, check his socks. They might be emblazoned with the logo of H-E-B, the privately held, San Antonio–based grocery chain that sells foodstuffs, housewares, and sundries with a Texas bent. Cheney, a 47-year-old Houston native, counts himself as one of H-E-B’s many fans, but until this week, he had to travel south if he had a hankering for H-E-B’s Texas-shaped white-corn tortilla chips or its Texas Heritage brand of smoked sausage. Way south.
Although the grocery chain has more than 420 stores and is ubiquitous in South, Central, and West Texas, there have been no stores bearing the H-E-B name in the megalopolis that is Dallas, Fort Worth, and their many booming northern suburbs. That changed on the morning of Wednesday, September 21, when a 118,000-square-foot H-E-B slid open its doors at the corner of Legacy Drive and Main Street in Frisco. The store is the first of several planned to open in Dallas’s northern suburbs over the next year, and Cheney said it answers the pleas of many Frisconians who are his fellow H-E-B fans. “For the longest time,” Cheney told me, “the number one question I got from residents was ‘When is H-E-B going to finally come to town?’ ”
That question is now answered, but a new one may emerge for North Texans. With more than a million new residents added in the past decade alone, it’s reasonable to believe a lot of people north of Interstate 20 are about to get their first taste of H-E-B’s Texas Heat trail mix and Cowboy Cookie packs, and, especially as H-E-B opens planned stores in Plano, McKinney, and Allen, they may then begin to discover why the food site Eater once declared H-E-B to be “the cultiest cult grocer in America.” The question, then, for those of us who haven’t already been inducted into that cult is: what’s the big deal with H-E-B, anyway?
To try to figure that out, I headed 55 miles west of downtown Dallas to the small community of Hudson Oaks, outside Weatherford. The H-E-B store there, close to I-20, was the northernmost of all the company’s H-E-B stores in this region until the Frisco location opened this week. (Technically the H-E-B in Lubbock is farther north.) The Dallas area has several Central Market stores, a swanky H-E-B subsidiary chain where I’ve shopped, but, perhaps like many North Texans, I’d never been inside an H-E-B until arriving in Hudson Oaks. When I walked through the doors, the store struck me less as a traditional grocery store and more as a warehouse club. It had exposed ceilings that were maybe 25 feet high, with metal beams painted in gleaming white. Some aisles looked wide enough to park a small pickup truck. Placards proclaiming “Low Prices” were plastered above many shelves. The H-E-B brand was stamped on everything—cashews, doughnuts, mineral water, Texas toast, salsa, and even cleaning supplies, such as scouring pads and toilet brushes.
As I wandered the wide aisles, I noticed many signs roughly the size of the flag that flies over the Texas state capitol jutting out from the walls. Each paid homage to the store’s Texas connections. One read: “It’s a Local Thing! We have more Texas-grown produce than any other retailer.” Another sign trumpeted that “H-E-B Corn Chips are made in San Antonio from corn grown in Hondo, Texas.” Yet another, in the produce aisles, declared: “Fresh from Cora’s Farm to Your Table.” That sign featured a photo of one Cora Lamar, who supplies H-E-B with cauliflower, peas, spinach, and other vegetables from her farm in Poteet, which is about thirty miles south of San Antonio.
In Hudson Oaks I met Rachel McCamley, an Austin native who routinely drives fifteen miles from her home in Fort Worth to shop at H-E-B. She told me all that Texas branding helps lure her back to the store. I found much the same sentiment an hour southeast of Hudson Oaks in Waxahachie—some thirty miles south of Dallas—where Bevin Shaw shops at the town’s lone H-E-B . Shaw said that since 2005, she’s regularly made the twenty-minute drive to the Waxahachie store, passing other big grocery stores on the way from her home near Red Oak. “It is neat to go in and find more local brands,” Shaw said. “They do try to support small Texas businesses.” One of her favorite buys: beef patties partly made with brisket.
Those same kinds of offerings will be available at the new Frisco store, too. So will a drive-through pharmacy and an in-store eatery called True Texas BBQ. The Frisco store, with its 750 employees, will also be different from other H-E-B locations in more subtle ways. Mabrie Jackson, H-E-B’s senior director of public affairs, told me that every new H-E-B store will reflect the “demographics, culture, eating habits, and shopping patterns” of its customers. In a nod to Frisco’s large Asian Indian population, for example, the store there will sell South Asian yogurt as well as chapati and roti whole-wheat flatbread, Jackson said.
Tweaking stores to meet individual communities’ needs, as well as a commitment to low prices, has helped H-E-B grow from a single location in 1905 to more than 420 stores today—77 in Mexico and all the rest in Texas. In addition to its H-E-B outlets, the company operates several other formats in the Lone Star State, including ten upscale Central Market stores; nine locations of Joe V’s Smart Shop, a discount grocer; two grocery stores geared toward Latino shoppers called Mi Tienda; and eleven convenience stores as well as five specialty pharmacies.
That’s a far piece from the single store Florence T. Butt operated in 1905 in Kerrville, in the Texas Hill Country. Florence handed that store off to her son, Howard E. Butt Sr., who began the expansion that finally reached Frisco. Today H-E-B has 145,000 workers, making it the biggest private employer in Texas. H-E-B says its annual sales are $34 billion. That’s about one fourth of what Cincinnati-based, publicly traded Kroger pulls in annually, but it’s still enough to make H-E-B the nation’s fifth-largest private company, according to Forbes.
Branding experts say the company’s growth has been driven, in no small part, by H-E-B’s focus on its Texas heritage. While grocers based outside Texas—Publix in Florida, Wegmans in New York, and Harris Teeter in the Carolinas—have earned their own cult followings by offering regional products and produce and by appealing to local pride, Curt Munk, chief strategy officer at Irving-based Tracy-Locke, a global commerce marketing agency, told me that he believes H-E-B intertwines its region with its offerings more than any other grocer. Indeed, scanning the aisles in Hudson Oaks, I saw labels touting “Quest for Texas Best” and “To Texas, With Love,” as well as Whataburger ketchup and Whataburger pork sausage, wrapped in that Texas chain’s orange-and-white branding.
Munk said the biggest thing that sets H-E-B apart, though, is that its stores don’t just sell meat and produce, “they provide experiences.” That might mean roasting Hatch chile peppers on-site from August through September or passing out samples of new recipes by H-E-B chefs—grilled tuna–and–feta tacos, say—at the stores’ so-called Cooking Connection stations. Or even handing out free, freshly made tortillas from H-E-B’s in-store tortillerias. H-E-B has “an entire theater setup, really, for the performance of food,” Munk said.
That and all those Texas twists in the product offerings have helped H-E-B closely connect to customers. In January 2022, Chicago-based Dunnhumby, a customer data science firm, said H-E-B ranked second, behind Amazon, in an annual consumer-preference study of U.S. grocery companies. Then, in June 2022, another Dunnhumby survey of online grocery shoppers crowned H-E-B the country’s top e-commerce grocer.
H-E-B hopes it can parlay those kinds of rankings into a bigger presence in the booming Dallas–Fort Worth area. After buying properties and biding its time in the area for years, it is now poised for further expansion. H-E-B “owns at least thirty-five sites here,” said Herb Weitzman, whose eponymous, Dallas-based retail real estate–services company has helped H-E-B secure at least a dozen sites throughout the state. “And they’re continuing to buy sites.”
Still, H-E-B faces serious challenges as it expands in North Texas. The Dallas market is dominated by Kroger, Target, Tom Thumb, Sam’s Club, and Walmart, and those deep-pocketed competitors are ramping up to meet H-E-B’s arrival. Kroger recently opened a massive fulfillment center south of I-20 in Dallas that can reportedly process 18,000 orders a day, dropping food and other goods at curbside pickup spots or store sites. And Walmart is remodeling fifty of its stores in the Dallas–Fort Worth area this year.
Beyond that, H-E-B’s Texas twang may sound unfamiliar to the almost 100,000 people who just started calling the Dallas and Fort Worth areas home in the past year. Chris Smith, cofounder of the Dallas advertising and marketing agency Plot Twist Creativity, which works closely with H-E-B’s in-house marketing department, says the company is working on appealing to shoppers who didn’t grow up with the brand. But, one wonders, will Californians from Fresno who now live in Frisco choose the familiarity of Kroger over H-E-B? Or will they shop at H-E-B as a means of cementing their new Texanness?
David Coats, vice president of strategy at Slingshot, a Dallas-based marketing and advertising firm, took a guess at the answer. “Once the H-E-B brand hits North Texas,” Coats said, “I think you’re going to see a lot of people who are going to be very, very loyal to it as shoppers. Much more so than they would be to Kroger or Tom Thumb or places like that.”