We went to one of the best grocery stores in the US that only has locations in Texas and Northern Mexico and saw why it has such a cult following
Katie CanalesMar 1, 2019, 04.48 AM
Katie Canales/Business Insider
A number of things come to mind when one thinks of Texas: cowboy hats, Tex-Mex food, and wide open spaces are some of them.
What should also be on that list is a century-old grocery store that many Texans swear by: H-E-B.
It's many a Texan's one-stop shop for food, household items, and a slew of other necessities.
It also happens to be the fourth best grocery store in the US thanks to its strong combination of market share, sales growth, sales efficiency, and emotional connection with its shopper base, according to a recent report by data company Dunnhumby.
That's just a sliver of the national attention that H-E-B has garnered in its years of operations.
To put the store into perspective, the regional chain is the Texas equivalent of a Safeway or a Publix, but with a fanbase that's arguably even more loyal.
We visited a location in Hutto, Texas, a town north of Austin.
It's one of only 400 H-E-B stores, most of which are in Texas and some in Northern Mexico. None of the other 49 US states have locations.
Since it was founded in Kerrville, Texas, in 1905, the company has embraced its strong Texan identity, one that resonates with its customers and has kept them coming back.
And though stores like Trader Joe's and Whole Foods have some headway on H-E-B, the regional chain has proven that a conventional grocery supermarket can hold its own.
It ranked fourth out of 23 grocery stores nationwide in a 2018 Market Force report based on factors like checkout speed, best value, and store cleanliness.
In 2017, The Daily Meal ranked H-E-B the seventh best grocery store in the US out of 25 companies, with Whole Foods and Trader Joe's taking spots one and two, respectively.
And in 2014, Forbes attributed H-E-B's longevity partly to its clever Texas pride-infused marketing.
For example, the chain's private-label Hill Country Fare is named after the Central Texas Hill Country region ...
... and H-E-B coffee line Cafe Olé has flavors like Taste of San Antonio and Texas Pecan.
As native Texan Priya Krishna wrote in her "H-E-B Forever" feature in Eater, "It turns out that, after oil, Texas pride may be the state's single most lucrative natural resource — in part because it can take so many different forms, each of which can be sold to a distinct audience."
The retailer was also ranked fourth in the country out of 56 grocery stores for its strong combination of market share, sales growth, sales efficiency, and an emotional connection to its shopper base. The company surpassed Wegman's, Aldi's, and Walmart.
One of the biggest areas in which H-E-B was lauded in the report was its "superior Private Brand offering."
For almost every name-brand product, there's an H-E-B alternative, like these yellow corn tortilla chips ...
... or a bag of lime-flavored chips for half the price of a bag of Tostitos.
It's possible to cross every item off your grocery list at H-E-B without even touching a national brand.
During our tour of H-E-B, the dental hygiene section was the first department we ventured into ...
... and we immediately began to see how much you could end up saving by shopping H-E-B's private label. The H-E-B brand of a one-liter bottle of antiseptic mouthwash costs half as much as the same name-brand product.
H-E-B's own line of toothpaste sat next to the Crest products.
There were hanging stacks of H-E-B's handy-dandy yellow coupons advertising 50 cents off of Crest 3D tubes.
They're found all around the store next to certain products.
The particular location we visited was an H-E-B Plus ...
... which means it had everything that the regular H-E-B grocery locations do, but with more categories like outdoor, electronics, toys, and clothes.
The store also had more specialty products, like Tom's all-natural toothpaste.
In the beauty department, you've got your typical drugstore makeup products from Maybelline ...
... as well as Neutrogena and Almay, among other brands.
There's also the very affordable line of Suave hair products.
You can snag a 12.6-ounce bottle of shampoo for $1.98.
Even the regular H-E-B locations have household items like paper towels.
But more childcare items are stocked in Plus stores. There are Johnson's products as well as lower-priced Hill Country Fare equivalents.
You can grab a 336-count Huggies pack of baby wipes for $8.98, versus a 400-count H-E-B package for $7.18.
An 18-ounce bottle of Method dish soap goes for $2.99 ...
... compared to a 38-ounce bottle of H-E-B dish soap for the same price.
H-E-B's line of plastic storage bags, cleverly called Texas Tough, come in bunches of 22 for $1.68.
You'll get fewer bags for more money if you opt for Hefty.
No matter what section you're shopping in, you'll have plenty of options to choose from, whether it's an H-E-B brand or name brands like Clorox, Mr. Clean, or Ajax.
Diversifying each category with plenty of choices has become increasingly more important for grocery stores to remain relevant.
For example, in the dairy section you can pick up a gallon of whole milk ...
... or organic whole milk, just to name two options. There's also 2%, skim, fat-free, reduced-fat, low-fat, soy, and almond milk.
The cereal aisle boasts products from brands like Kellogg's and Raisin Bran ...
... and an entire aisle is dedicated to paper towels and toilet paper.
You can get six rolls of Charmin for $10.47 ...
... or nine rolls from the H-E-B brand for $7.42.
The snack aisle is equally varied, with tasty choices like Takis and H-E-B Chicharrones, or pork rinds.
H-E-B also has a stellar frozen department ...
... mostly because that's where the ice cream is.
H-E-B's Creamy Creations ice cream line is so much of a hit with Texans that some favor it over fellow Southern ice cream favorite Blue Bell.
And that's saying a lot — Blue Bell, churned in the Texas town of Brenham, is beloved in the state and was the fifth best-selling ice cream brand in the US in 2017.
But Creamy Creations flavors pack a big kick. Most of the flavors also sport very Texas-esque names, like the Texans Tackle Crackle, named after the sports team, and Floresville Peanut Sundae, made with peanuts from Floresville, Texas.
Other brands, like Snickers, Dreyers, and Breyers, are stocked nearby.
There are so many choices that you might think it'd be overwhelming — but it's not.
Among the choices in the olive oil section is an organic extra-virgin olive oil by H-E-B's Organics line.
In fact, organic products are found throughout the entire store, from the dairy section to the meat market.
More high-end grocery stores have upped their focus on healthy living to cater to health-conscious consumers, and H-E-B hasn't skipped a beat in that trend.
In 2014, it introduced its Organics line of products.
There's a wide range of organic and gluten-free products, even in the snack aisle.
There are Ritz Crackers stocked on the shelves ...
... but H-E-B Organics also has organic cracker alternatives, and at good prices, too.
This organic package of water crackers is cheaper than a box of Carr's.
There are even gluten-free alcoholic beverage options.
In the spices aisle is a hefty selection of the all-natural, organic line of Simply Organics herbs and spices.
But there are also alternatives from brands like McCormick ...
... Hill Country Fare ...
... and another H-E-B brand.
Another thing that H-E-B does right is offer meal options for customers who cook, customers who don't, and everyone in between.
Customers are increasingly turning to take-out or restaurant food for dinner instead of home-cooked meals.
So picking up a microwavable dinner supplied by your local grocery store on the cheap is likely an attractive option.
A whole section in this H-E-B store is dedicated to fully cooked entrees, like seasoned pulled pork for $5.99 or shredded beef with BBQ sauce for $6.99.
But H-E-B is still a place for chefs, too.
Whole ingredients are stocked, like rows and rows of pasta sauce ...
... and accompanying 16-ounce bags of pasta, like penne and elbow macaroni, for 79 cents.
In the meat department are high-quality meats like pork loin for $4.49 per pound and Angus beef for $5.79 per pound.
There are also packaged meats like Jimmy Dean sausage and a less expensive H-E-B equivalent.
And you can pick up a Hill Country Fare carton of a dozen eggs for 88 cents.
If you need some guidance in the kitchen, H-E-B's Primo Picks program highlights "unique, one of a kind" products to work into your regular grocery hauls. They regularly release fliers listing them.
And a Primo Picks label is displayed underneath the various chosen products throughout the store, too. This Central Market full-bodied Tuscany extra-virgin olive oil must be tasty if it's got one.
Same with this Texas Lost Maples Chardonnay — it must be good.
The Lost Maples is one of the many local wines featured in H-E-B's alcohol department.
Local Texas products are found throughout the store, in fact. Stocking shelves with local products is another growing trend in grocery stores, one that customers value.
Near the Lost Maples items is a Sangiovese by Texas winery Messina Hof.
There's also a "Back Porch Red" wine by another Texas winery, Fiesta Winery.
But the wine selection is vast and includes other types of wines as well.
There are the low-priced wines by California-based winery Gallo.
Fellow bargain wine Yellowtail is stocked nearby.
And beer is aplenty ...
... from imported ...
... to domestic.
And since this is an H-E-B Plus, there are more non-food-related items.
A clothing boutique sits near the cash registers at one entrance.
Another clothing section, filled with items geared toward fitness and casual wear, is displayed in clear view.
This maroon top was listed as a clearance item and priced at $5.
Hallmark's line of cards for birthdays and other occasions are stocked.
The aisle over is carved out for electronics, like video games and game controllers.
There are smart home devices like Nest's home thermostat ...
... and Roku streaming products. The shelf had no Roku Ultra Streaming Players left, likely thanks to the stack of yellow coupons for $20 off the device.
You could snag a four-pack of the "Resident Evil" movie franchise for $6.99.
In the pet aisle are bags of Blue Buffalo and Nutro for furry friends with more sophisticated palates ...
... and H-E-B's own line of pet food, dubbed Texas Pets.
Going to H-E-B means being able to pick up a wide range of items, from groceries to pet food to seasonal decorations, ...
... and you can even fill up your car, since some H-E-B stores are accompanied by a Fuel Station.
They also come with an attached convenience store. This one was complete with a connected Whataburger because, of course.