An empty grocery cart sits in the parking lot in front of H-E-B in the near east side. Photo by Scott Ball.

The H-E-B store at 415 N. New Braunfels Ave. is about to receive a series of welcome upgrades, a cause for celebration for Eastside residents who are seeing new levels of public and private investment in their side of the city after decades of neglect  and decline.

The near-Eastside H-E-B  is the only full-service grocery store in the historically low income, African-American neighborhood in District 2 that is becoming increasingly Latino with each passing decade. The store is blocks away from the fast-changing Dignowity Hill Historic District. Yet many neighbors would rather drive several miles to another store than walk a few blocks to the nearby H-E-B.

“There are a lot of problems that stop you from even going inside,” said Akeem Brown, director of communications and policy for Councilman Alan Warrick (D2), describing neighborhood conditions that surround the grocery store.

Vagrants panhandle on the sidewalk, street litter is common and blows across the crowded parking lot. Drug dealing is scarcely concealed at night, and break-ins and burglaries still occur at high rates. Two area shelters and centers keep a steady stream of homless people moving along residential streets and loitering in public parks.

Brown said there is less attention paid by store personnel to cleanliness and upkeep compared to other H-E-B locations.

Dignowity Hill has seen an increase in newcomers over the past several years as Millennials and Baby Boomers alike have taken to the historic neighborhood’s proximity to downtown, public parks, and close knit community. But some have never ventured into their neighborhood H-E-B save for emergency purchases.

Brown said that Warrick’s office has received complaints about the store along with the all the other neighborhood ailments.

H-E-B employees and customers interact at the checkout lanes. Photo by Scott Ball.
H-E-B employees and customers interact at the checkout lanes. Photo by Scott Ball. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“We’re trying to raise expectations in this part of town,” Brown said. “H-E-B has been a great partner to renovate this store.”

About five months ago, Brown and Councilman Warrick started a conversation with H-E-B about making minor upgrades to the store. On Dec. 14, those aesthetic and merchandising changes will begin to unfold, starting with a fresh coat of paint inside and on the store exterior. After the holidays, exterior LED lighting will be installed, the parking lot will be re-striped, and the product layout, notably the produce section, will be “reset.” The work is expected to be completed by the end of January.

“We already have a significant amount of organic produce in the store … the produce section is pretty large for how small the store is,” said Dya Campos, H-E-B’s director of public affairs. The resetting will “emphasize those products more to do a better job of highlighting what we do have.”

The produce section was expanded during a $3 million renovation in 2011 that included improved street crossings, a remodeled front entrance with canopy, new restrooms, and the installation of a large mural created by students participating in the Blue Star Contemporary MOSAIC Student Artist Program. Public art has become a hallmark of H-E-B stores as they open or undergo renovation.

A large tile mural created by students working with renowned muralist Alex Ruibio and the Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum's Mosaic program. Photo by Scott Ball.
A tile mural celebrating the Eastside’s history was created by students working with muralist Alex Rubio in the Blue Star Contemporary MOSAIC Student Artist Program. Photo by Scott Ball.

The upgrades also  will include better promotion of healthy food option/cooking demonstrations already taking place at the store.

“There are several things currently going on that customers aren’t really aware of,” Campos said. “So we’ll be doing some strategic things to help customers to identify (healthier options).”

One barrier to a more comprehensive renovation is that H-E-B does not own the property or building.

“A lot of our properties are long term leases,” Campos said. “Stores we do own we’re able to do a lot more with in terms of renovation,” such as the H-E-B Nogalitos store on the Southside that was razed, save for its historic facade, and redesigned as an inviting two-story location complete with escalators and podium parking.

Brown said the upgrades will make customers feel more welcome and hopefully will generate more neighborhood pride, too.

Campos said H-E-B takes the quality of produce very seriously.

“On our end we need to rotate (through produce) better, but it’s a symptom of low volume,” Campos said. “We’re trying to find the right balance of bringing in the produce that our customers want and the amount that will actually sell.”

In other words, it’s hard to keep a produce section looking fresh when people aren’t buying enough. If it’s not purchased, produce wilts on the shelf.

“We’re constantly finding our rhythm and it’s different in every store,” she said. Hence the upcoming “resetting” and increased educational outreach. What’s not different is the produce itself, she said. The produce sold in Northside stores “comes from the same place” as produce sold on the Eastside.

H-E-B has a round-the-clock security presence at the store.

“We have generations of families that have shopped at that store for years, we’re very aware of how significant it is to the community,” Campos said.

Many customers are more concerned about the size of the store than anything else.

“It’s too small for the neighborhood,” John Calloway told the Rivard Report in the store’s parking lot on Friday morning. “They should do more than that, the neighborhood has really grown.”

John Calloway poses for a photo in front of his local H-E-B located in the cities near East side. Photo by Scott Ball.
John Calloway in front of his local H-E-B on North New Braunfels Avenue. Photo by Scott Ball.

*Top image: An empty grocery cart sits in the parking lot in front of New Braunfels and Houston H-E-B in the Eastside. Photo by Scott Ball.

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Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@sareport.org