I don’t watch much daytime television, but I tuned in Wednesday afternoon to watch “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” carried locally by KENS-TV, as the host gave H-E-B a major shoutout and held up an oversized check for $1 million the Texas grocer has presented to Feeding Texas.
“I want to send my love to the people in Texas. They are still recovering from winter storms,” Degeneres said during the program. “Millions have been left without power, water, and food. H-E-B is a grocery store chain committed to taking care of Texans. I am happy to announce an incredible donation. They say everything is bigger in Texas, and it is, even the checks. H-E-B is donating $1 million to support food banks throughout the Lone Star State.”
In an instant, DeGeneres’ viewers joined the growing number of people outside Texas who are applauding the company without ever stepping inside a store, watching one of the company’s entertaining commercials with past and present San Antonio Spurs, or experiencing the generosity of H-E-B’s Spirit of Giving philosophy.
H-E-B has long garnered strong industry recognition for its rapid growth and market domination, its branded product development, a distinct Texas identity, and a culture that bonds customers into an almost familial relationship with the company.
The business acumen of Chairman and CEO Charles Butt, who moved the company’s headquarters from Corpus Christi to San Antonio in 1985 and built the team that has overseen the company’s exponential growth and market expansion in the ensuing 36 years, is hardly a secret. The company gives away tens of millions of dollars in cash and in-kind donations annually to Texas nonprofits, and Butt is the leading individual supporter of public education in the state. He also has taken the Giving Pledge.
“The roots of the Spirit of Giving at the company I have headed over the past 50 years are directly traced back to my parents’ decision in 1933 to contribute 5 percent of our pre-tax income to charitable causes. We’ve kept that pledge through changes in tax rates and other variables,” Butt wrote in his Giving Pledge letter in 2018.
It’s the company’s pandemic response and, now, its in-store service and community outreach in the wake of crippling winter weather in Texas that is getting growing national attention. H-E-B has become a feel-good story being shared on one national media platform after another.
A Washington Post article published Feb. 19 carried the headline, A Texas grocery store lost power and let people leave without paying. Shoppers paid it forward. The article was based on a decision by store managers in H-E-B’s store in Leander to allow grocers to leave with essential groceries without paying after the store lost its power and ability to ring up customer purchases.
A Facebook posting by Tim Henny, who was in the store with wife Deb when the power was lost and the lights went out, went viral.
“I salute H.E.B. for the kindness they showed us, the thoughtfulness they showed us, the generosity they showed us, and the caring that they showed us (along with the other hundreds of fellow Texans in the store at that time),” Henny wrote. “From the bottom of mine and Deb’s heart, we will never forget what you did.”
Days later, a laudatory story appeared on the home page of the New York Times chronicling in greater detail H-E-B’s efforts throughout its market area to restock and reopen stores as power was restored even as its employees dealt with the loss of power and water at their own homes. The headline was one most businesses could only dream of reading: Texans Needed Food and Comfort After a Brutal Storm. As Usual, They Found It at H-E-B.
How Texans feel about the company transcends the transactional nature of most retail-customer relationships, summed up by Texas author and journalist Stephen Harrigan, who told a Times reporter, “It’s like H-E-B is the moral center of Texas. There seems to be in our state a lack of real leadership, a lack of real efficiency, on the political level. But on the business level, when it comes to a grocery store, all of those things are in place.”
Even before the pandemic arrived in Texas early last year, H-E-B’s national reputation was growing. Forbes magazine named it the 12th-largest privately held company in the country with annual revenues exceeding $28 billion. One of its writers produced a January 2020 article headlined H-E-B: The Smartest Supermarket You’ve Just Heard Of.
That same month, H-E-B was ranked No. 1 among 60 grocery retailers nationwide, in the annual Dunnhumby Annual Retailer Preference Index report, topping Trader Joe’s Whole Foods, Publix, Walmart, and every other grocer you can name.
Jody Adams, the James Beard-winning chef from Boston, is my sister-in-law. Asked on her last visit to San Antonio what she and her husband and my brother, Ken, wanted to do while they were here, she answered without a pause: “Go to Central Market.”
The Spurs have long been San Antonio’s best calling card, around the league and around the world. At times such as the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina the city has opened its arms and received national recognition. Now, H-E-B, the most San Antonio of all companies, is giving people outside Texas a new reason to think about the state in ways that rise above the usual stereotypes.
The Charles Butt Foundation is a financial supporter of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here.