"We are constantly in a year-round state of preparedness"
March 27, 2020 10:49 AM   Subscribe

Inside the Story of How H-E-B Planned for the Pandemic Previous natural disasters have helped the regional grocery chain prepare for the current pandemic.
posted by vespabelle (37 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
I really like HEB. When I lived in Houston, it was my favorite grocery chain by far.
posted by shoesietart at 11:19 AM on March 27

I mentioned to my roommate, who works there, that I figured that the reason they could pull this sort of preparation was that they're not publicly traded. The owners (the eponymous Howard E. Butts founded the chain) were the sort of Christian evangelicals that actually did (and do) put their money where their mouths are when it comes to looking after the community, and I figured it was probably just down to the family's steering. She told me "yes, but they don't actually own the majority of the stock; the workers own the majority of the stock in the chain at this point." See, they do sell stock... but only to employees.

I also like them a lot, and find that the closer I pay attention to them, the more I like them. This is a vanishingly rare experience for me when it comes to large corporations.
posted by sciatrix at 11:27 AM on March 27 [42 favorites]

The Butts family have also been generous donors to Texas public schools. One of the good guys as far as I'm concerned (and they MUST open a store in Dallas!!).
posted by orrnyereg at 11:34 AM on March 27 [4 favorites]

I didn't know how great HEB was until I moved away from Texas. It's been almost 10 years and I still occasionally catch myself saying "I'm about to head to HEB" when I'm announcing a grocery run.
posted by Atom Eyes at 11:37 AM on March 27 [1 favorite]

Grocery stores are often good examples for the positive impacts of capitalism, and HEB is a good example of a grocery store chain. They're decent members of their community. They work hard to deliver value. They have, based on anecdotal evidence, a strong desire to support their employees.

By chance, I was at HEB doing my normal weekly shopping when Trump delivered his national address a few weeks ago. It took 40 minutes to check out. Everyone there, employees and customers were pulling their weight to make it work.

I do think they've overstated the availability of items in their stores, based on a few online orders since. I wonder if that's in part an attempt to curb panic shopping. Personally, if prefer them to be up front, but I understand that I'm maybe not how the average person behaves.
posted by lownote at 11:40 AM on March 27

HEB is one company that I'm actually really impressed with. They've always been good-- every store is hyper-local in what they stock/carry. Almost everyone who works there seems happy to work there.
In praise of HEB.
Their bakery/tortilleria is unmatched.
They truck relief supplies all across Texas.
Their in-house stuff is better than anything else you can get-- their salsas, especially.
I never thought I'd wind up in Texas, but here I am, after 15+ years, and I appreciate HEB more and more as the years go on. It's a very rare thing.
posted by rp at 11:41 AM on March 27 [6 favorites]

HEB is the only good thing I miss from my time in TX.
posted by SaltySalticid at 11:47 AM on March 27 [2 favorites]

Lownote: The wheat tortillas are even so much better! And the very best is when you can pick 'em up still warm in the bag.
posted by rp at 11:47 AM on March 27

Here was an unrelated thing they did in February that first confused me and then made me warm and fuzzy. They committed, too--the stores were full of unicorns and sparkles when this thing was going on. It was a little stupid thing but like... right now everything is rough and scary and it feels like there's no support from our institutions, like the only people who care about doing better are the ones who are trying to claw power from the mighty. It just. It made me feel better to see a big institution in my life go, apparently unprompted, "YEAH, LITTLE GIRLS ARE GREAT JUST THE WAY THEY ARE."

Plus bonus unicorns everywhere.
posted by sciatrix at 11:52 AM on March 27 [4 favorites]

Just here to say that HEB is THE BEST grocery store! I freaking love HEB, and miss it now that I'm not in Texas anymore. I also enjoy how people from Texas are united in their appreciation of how great HEB is.
posted by aka burlap at 12:02 PM on March 27 [3 favorites]

I could not find anything in the article about protections for workers. Nothing about gloves or masks. In my area, grocery workers are starting to test positive for the virus, and many of them do wear gloves. (All the masks were apparently sent away.) Is HEB doing anything to protect their workers?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 12:09 PM on March 27

Yeah, everyone's wearing gloves, many wearing masks, they have distancing markers on the floors, and they have a dedicated employee at the door handing out wipes.
posted by rp at 12:15 PM on March 27 [3 favorites]

They had sneeze shields very quickly, are limiting the number of people in the store at any given time, and have roaming workers enforcing social distancing as well as provided hand sanitizer to handle any time they're touching customer money. I do not know that they are wearing masks or that gloves are required/provided; I can ask my roommate about that later. I think the article mentioned that they are also receiving hazard pay.

I haven't been in a grocery store for a couple of weeks, mind you; this is based on reports from my roommate when she hauls herself home.
posted by sciatrix at 12:15 PM on March 27 [1 favorite]

I'm pleased to learn they are taking protective measures.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 12:34 PM on March 27 [2 favorites]

It's "Butt" not "Butts". I've had to be corrected because I have a friend whose last name is "Butts" and she's from the same area.
posted by tofu_crouton at 12:40 PM on March 27 [1 favorite]

This just sounds an amazing company. Real Christianity and real humanity - two rare commodities - and real profit by the look of it. HEB should just be the world business model.
posted by unearthed at 12:45 PM on March 27 [1 favorite]

I know nothing about H-E-B so this is all news to me.

I've been saying for days that I would like my local grocery workers to get hazard pay, and I'm glad to see HEB is offering it. $2 an hour isn't much (at all), but few things speak louder than money, and even a small recognition of the dangers the workers are facing is better than none at all.

I was struck by this:
For example, when we saw what was happening with the volume, we asked at corporate if people wanted to volunteer to take shifts in the stores and at the warehouses. We immediately had hundreds—800 corporate folks volunteered for 350, 400 shifts in our stores and warehouses, to be able to help out and give some relief to our stores.
That suggests to me that they've been pretty good at hiring good people.

I'm really glad to know about this. Thank you so much for posting it, vespabelle!

(Also, hurray for TexasMonthly - they do some GOOD reporting. Yay.)
posted by kristi at 1:02 PM on March 27 [14 favorites]

Nice Texas Monthly article on Pale Horse Pale Rider, too.
posted by clew at 1:05 PM on March 27

I often wonder if I had started my sojourn in Central Texas near a Randalls rather than HEB. Maybe the flies in the produce section would have driven me away. I feel bad for people with transportation issues that are stuck outside an HEB neighborhood.
posted by blakewest at 1:22 PM on March 27

There’s a Randall’s five minutes from my house. I drive past it and go twice as far to HEB, every single grocery trip.

I dislike most things about living in Texas, but HEB is awesome and I’ll miss it when I move away.

I’ve been there once a week or so since this thing started, and it’s amazing how chipper the checkers are (I usually get the same guy, just by coincidence, and he says and looks like he’s having a good time). The rotating cast of baggers, on the other hand, always look beleaguered. I don’t blame them.
posted by liet at 1:58 PM on March 27 [2 favorites]

No idea why *this* would be the story to make me cry this week, but here we are.
posted by q*ben at 2:13 PM on March 27 [5 favorites]

oh, the mariachis!
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 2:26 PM on March 27 [2 favorites]

How does a grocery store have a better handle on this mess than nearly every national government so far? I feel like I'm reading Snow Crash...
posted by clockwork at 2:51 PM on March 27 [7 favorites]

My partner is an editor at Texas Monthly and it's been a crazy month for the magazine. Most of their plans for the issue and regular features no longer made sense. It's not really the moment for restaurant reviews, you know? The magazine has to go to the printer two weeks before it reaches subscribers, so a rapidly changing crisis is tough for them to cover, and yet of course no one can talk about anything but coronavirus right now. The magazine is normally focused on features and meeting the necessity of covering news instead is a challenge. On top of that, they've had to rapidly transition to working from home with all the complications that brings, as well as a sudden revenue drop and page shortage from the massive ad cancellations that I'm sure are impacting publications everywhere. They're somewhat insulated financially because they have a wealthy owner who is willing to eat short-term losses, but it's a stressful time.

The HEB story has been the big bright spot in this slog - they've gotten almost as many impressions on it in the past two days as they normally get in a month across their entire website. It's actually not appearing in the coming print issue, but I've been telling my partner that she should push to make the issue after focused on HEB. In the best of times, Texans are endlessly fascinated by HEB, and in these bad times I think they deserve an enormous dose of stability, competence, and reasonable prices.
posted by vathek at 2:55 PM on March 27 [31 favorites]

I have the great fortune of being near 3 HEBs and for the past 2 weeks I've been having to go to all of them to find necessities, and as always I'm so impressed with them. Cheerful, helpful employees despite the stress and worries; being on top of necessary cleaning and social distancing measures; and better stocked shelves than other stores in the area. And now that I know their employees own the majority of the company's stock, it all makes sense and makes me love them even more. Also, their white corn tortillas are amazing too.
posted by SA456 at 3:00 PM on March 27

clockwork, one angle on why a grocery chain is doing better than just about every national government is that great leaders are rare. Increasing the rewards for leadership doesn't reliably get you better leadership and it may get you worse leadership.

Should we be encouraging H-E-B executives to go into politics?
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 3:46 PM on March 27

Hah, one of my colleagues emailed me the article this morning. I really like the glimpse into the supply chain they are creating mid-crisis and how they're willing to reach out to Texas suppliers (beer, restaurant) that are idle right now and trying to find a way to make it work for both sides.

My HEB is brand new - it just opened a couple months ago. Unfortunately, the first time I visited was the afternoon of March 13th so it wasn't really anyone's time to shine. I will absolutely give credit and say that although things were tense and people were just about openly panicking, every employee was handling it professionally and there were stockers on the floor with huge pallets in the midst of the chaos. I'll go back for a re-do on the first impression when this is over.
posted by librarylis at 3:53 PM on March 27

Texas is so close to purple that I can almost taste it.
posted by unknowncommand at 4:17 PM on March 27 [8 favorites]

How does a grocery store have a better handle on this mess than nearly every national government so far?

It's there in the subhed right under the headline. The grocer started communicating with Chinese counterparts in January and was running tabletop simulations a few weeks later.

They talked to the Chinese and worked with them instead of doing nothing and then using the Chinese as a scapegoat.
posted by Borborygmus at 4:30 PM on March 27 [18 favorites]

Also, H-E-B started working on pandemic preparedness in 2005.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 4:41 PM on March 27 [3 favorites]

Texas is so close to purple

because the Republicans in the Texas lege have got their hands gripped so tightly around its windpipe that its eyes are bugging out!
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 7:55 PM on March 27 [2 favorites]

Probably three or four times a month I say how much I miss HEB now that we moved away from Texas. I also miss Publix. I love living in the Southwest, but someone needs to open a decent grocery store chain out here!
posted by WalkerWestridge at 8:37 PM on March 27 [1 favorite]

My brother and I are the designated shoppers. We've been shopping at HEB in central Texas for years. Mom is 84 years old, and she likes to shop, but she knows the seriousness of the situation - she's a retired nurse. We do the shopping now.

The last few weeks, HEB's response has been nothing less than phenomenal. They organized limited 10 shoppers per group, which goes fast, as people are leaving the store fairly quickly. They have organized cart sanitation procedures, as well as individual hand cleaner dispensing stations, both going in and leaving the store.

Last week, there was a longish line that moved quickly. Lots of staff helping sanitize and reassure customers. Today I went in, and they had appliques on the sidewalk indicating a six foot separation. Again, the line in moved quickly, and there are managers out front letting everyone know the procedures. Even if you've never been to an HEB before, you'd know the drill, because they have dedicated people out there telling you.

Inside the store, it's easy to move around, because there are fewer shoppers. There's no rush to shop - they let people in as people come out. Today I was able to get the first toilet paper I've seen in weeks. Milk, bread, eggs, tortillas, rice, beans, everything was stocked, though the toilet paper was not the usual racks wide and long, there was some, and an employee attending the rack to help customers.

The cashiers have plexiglass sneeze shields, and they won't let the customers near the baggers (get back behind the shield, sir). They are actively spraying and wiping things down. I had gotten two bags of a frozen vegetable mix, and the cashier politely asked me to select which one to sacrifice as I had inadvertantly gotten more than the allocated amount. No biggie.

HEB has always been a good grocery store, but this is above and beyond. It may be the new normal, but HEB is easily the best damn paradigm.

There are a number of things to like - or dislike - about Texas, but HEB has never ever been less than awesome.
posted by Xoebe at 11:47 AM on March 28 [13 favorites]

Jeez, I didn't realize how GOOD it would feel to read about people being competent and doing the right thing. Thank you for posting; it was a welcome breath of fresh air.
posted by csox at 8:19 AM on March 29 [3 favorites]

I went last Sunday AM & was impressed with the orderliness of their process that Xoebe describes above, but inventory was spotty. Produce was good, but everything else was 1/2 to 3/4’s bare, though I got most of what I needed to get through the week. I’m shopping for 5 right now & some of the limits per item made that difficult.

I went again this morning expecting it to be worse, since they just imposed the “stay at home” order mid-week, but inventory was great. They no longer has a limit on bread items, though they did on eggs, but 2 dozen will do us. Every single other thing I needed was in stock. Pasta was low-ish, but good, and beans of most varieties were pretty low, but they had flour, rice, TP, paper towels galore, & even some Clorox wipes & spray cleaner. I’ve been low-key stocking up since before the order to shut down SXSW (anxiety has its odd benefits) & today I feel like we’re prepared to hunker down for the duration of the current stay at home order, which is in effect through 13 April.

The store was clean, the staff vigilant, & the protocols were being gently enforced. They have a “line leader” person for every 2 registers that holds the line back until the cashier & bagger are ready for the next customer, they’re keeping the checkout stations disinfected & all the checkers were wearing gloves.

I’ve been very impressed.

The Randall’s down the street, by contrast, is picked clean like a scene from The Road. The staff is trying, but the corp was caught flat-footed & they were just overwhelmed. Very grim scene in there.
posted by Devils Rancher at 1:17 PM on March 29 [2 favorites]

HEB is so good. It’s been 14 years since I was near one and I still miss it. (Worth noting that Texas Monthly is really good too.)
posted by chimpsonfilm at 5:54 PM on March 29

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