No ribbons or bows are needed for the gift that one grocery store worker gives to make the holiday spirit last all year long.
That’s because Zarita Robinson finds it within herself.
A seven-year employee at the H-E-B store on Blanco Road and Loop 1604, Robinson bags groceries for customers, as she did during one recent Saturday shift, and more often exhibits baked goods or seasonal items like tamales.
With a kind word for everyone who crosses her path and a full-throated voice that carries songs across the supersized store, Robinson is known for her festive hats and socks, a talent for promoting store-brand products – and a deep desire to feed the soul.
Customer service comes naturally to Robinson as a longtime former bartender.
“But since I’ve been with H-E-B, I’m finding more gifts inside of me that I could use to share with other people,” she said.
Robinson said she “saw the need” when she came to H-E-B and prayed about it. “[I] asked the Lord to guide me on how I can be the brightest star amongst the stars in heaven,” she said.
Amid the recent rush of holiday shopping when customers with loaded carts were lined up at every checkout lane in the store, Robinson paused between bagging to wish departing customers a merry Christmas, especially the elderly and children.
She greeted co-workers with “love you” and a special nickname, whether she personally knew them or not. “I might do, but I treat them all as if I do,” she said.
And she made what she calls her joyful noise. “Because I don’t think I can sing,” she said.
“I recorded myself one day, and it was horrible. But it brings joy to people, so it’s a blessing.”
It also brings people to whatever product she’s promoting – a skill store managers appreciate. “I advertise it with song because I know people are curious,” she said. “When I make a joyful noise, they come to see, and then I get a chance to introduce them to the fabulous deals that I have, and a lot of them come by just because they like the singing.”
Customers also are swayed by Robinson’s maternal zeal. Once when a shopper told her the family had given up eating sugar, she noticed his young daughter really wanted the pie she was selling and convinced the father to buy it.
She won’t advocate or even sing for just any product. “My customers trust me and if there’s something I don’t believe in, then you know I have a talk with [managers] and we come up with something else,” she said.
But she will sing upon request, which often happens when customers pick up a birthday cake from the bakery and ask for a special jingle they can record and share later.
Robinson grew up in Indiana and moved to San Antonio 10 years ago. At age 62, she has three grown children, four grandsons, and two great-grandchildren. She is a breast cancer survivor, in remission for 18 years.
Robinson’s son, Gerell, played football at Arizona State University and for three NFL teams, the Denver Broncos, Miami Dolphins, and the Cleveland Browns. After watching the 2015 film, Concussion, Robinson told Gerell she would pray him out of football. He has since taken up boxing, she said.
As an essential worker, Robinson asked her family not to visit for the holidays “because I’m serious about the COVID thing,” she said. Instead, she’ll spend the holiday with one of her daughters, “sitting down and sharing love.” The store is closed on Christmas Day.
Robinson is thankful for her job because it allows her to help others, she said. “I’m the kind of person that people can see my love is genuine for them.” And she sees a lot of customers need kindness more than they need a loaf of bread or gallon of milk.
“People come in and they’re hurt or they’re sad or they need that compliment,” Robinson said, and so she remarks on a new haircut or a stylish outfit. Customers have lined up for her hugs. “People need that extra joy to take the mind off their problems.”
The need was greater in 2020, in her view, with more people in pain than ever before. So she skips the hugs but keeps up the giving. “I’m still doing the same thing, lifting people up and letting people see the joy in me and what I have and try to guide them to get it.”
Disclosure: H-E-B and its chairman, Charles Butt, are financial supporters of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here.