Upon moving to Austin, Texas, I became acquainted with a food blogger’s paradise: H-E-B. At first glance, it may seem like your average grocery store. But in reality, H-E-B is the most glorious chain of grocery stores in the land, and I am blown away each time I walk into one. In 1919 The creator, Howard E. Butt, who happened to have the best name ever, expanded the grocery store his mother started in their family home. It now boasts more than 350 stores throughout Texas and a handful in Mexico.
Texans love their H-E-B, and it’s easy to see why:
Produce tastes fresh and vibrant in Texas all year round. So why ship a product thousands of miles to get to the store? Unless you’re literally standing in a farmer’s market, you’ll be hard pressed to find any store with a stronger dedication to locally sourced food. The H-E-B brand shrimp are straight from the Gulf via Bowers Shrimp Farm in Galveston. The H-E-B-branded corn products (like corn chips) are made from corn grown in the fields of the Hondo Corn Farm in Hondo, Texas, and H-E-B’s Mootopia milk is even produced in Texas through H-E-B’s own dairy farms in San Antonio. If it has the H-E-B name on it, odds are it’s from Texas. Throughout the store you’ll see tags signifying which products are made locally, and there sure are a lot.
Most supermarket store brands have the feeling of being subpar or boringly generic, but H-E-B takes value shopping to a whole new level with their own store brands and shatters that presumption. They produce the H-E-B, H-E-Buddy, and Central Market labels, and for an even more cost-effective option, their Hill Country Fare brand is even less expensive but still tastes great. And that’s just their food brands—they also produce Cocinaware, Chef Style, Funderful and more.
Their store brand’s slogan is “Made for the love of Texans™” and they mean it. Each product is tested by and approved through a rigorous process that puts the products in front of real Texans, so no need to worry if the BBQ sauce you’re picking up is “authentic”—it’s been vetted. Products with the H-E-B Select label boast no high fructose corn syrup, no artificial flavors, no certified colors, and no partially hydrogenated oils. The icing on the (H-E-B brand) cake? They a full refund if you are not satisfied with their brands.
H-E-B has entire sections of the store dedicated to organic, low calorie and gluten free options for people with special dietary wants and needs. Depending on the store, you’ll find either a separate aisle for organic produce and meat, or alongside their non-organic counterparts (all clearly marked, of course). Plus, they all have the low cost options that H-E-B is known for, with H-E-B-specific brands mixed in with the premium options. H-E-B’s organics brand is USDA Certified Organic, with everything from fresh produce and meat to packaged snacks. Conscious omnivores can find comfort in the fact that the meat with the H-E-B Organics label is from organic-certified facilities. Not to mention, the gluten free section rivals that of bigger chains that pride themselves in healthy eating.
Remember the days of wandering through the supermarket with your mom, shyly snagging samples as you ventured through the aisles? These days, unless you’re perusing Costo, the sample stands feel like a thing of the past. But not at H-E-B. Upon entering any of the larger stores, you’re suddenly hit with the most amazing smells coming from the kitchen display in the center of the store. Come closer and you’ll find a chef in the kitchen detailing out via microphone how to make full meals using the featured products of the week. The best part? You get to taste them after the demonstration ends. The small plate they give you is a miniature meal, with chips and salsa around the display to munch on while you learn the recipe. And many of the products they’re cooking up are right nearby so they can easily fall into your shopping cart.
The smaller stores still have their fair share of samples, with takeaway recipe cards so you can make the meals at home. Look for the displays throughout the store, with the friendly H-E-B employee in an apron working over a hot plate full of goodness. Weekends you’ll see the beer and wine samples pick up with representatives from the company pouring out tastes, and visit close to any food-centric holiday and you can make a lunch out of the samples being passed out.
Everyone gets a golden ticket at H-E-B—Throughout the store, bright yellow coupons lead bargain shoppers to where the best deals are. But these are no ordinary coupons—you won’t see “buy three save 50 cents” here. These deals are solid, and better than most factory coupons you’ll find. Expect to save $1 or more per coupon, or even better, get an entire free item. Common deals I’ve seen include free chips with the purchase of salsa, or free bread with the purchase of peanut butter.
But it gets even better: each week H-E-B puts out a Combo Loco Meal Deal, where you can snag $10 or more worth of sides, sauces, drinks and more with the purchase of the central item. For example, the Fajita Combo Loco will give you soda, chips, salsa, tortillas and cheese (aka everything you need for dinner) with the purchase of chicken strips. You can find the Combo Loco as endcap displays near the dairy or produce sections, and typically nearby there will be another meal deal with slightly fewer items up for grabs. If you’re flexible with your list, these meal deals can be a bargain shopper’s dream deal come true.
Many stores highlight products with some sort of fun advertising—for example, 4th of July circulars highlighting grilling, blazoned with the American Flag. H-E-B takes this simple marketing to the next level. Each month is a different theme (many influenced by their favorite state), such as Hatch Chile Fest, Tour of Italy or Totally Texas. The sales reflect the theme, as do the samples, coupons, and store decor. They’ll even hire Texan food bloggers to create recipes that go along with the promotions, sending them boxes of products to highlight. They’ll share these recipes on social media, so that their followers can be inspired by the Primo Picks of the month.
This is by and far one of the things that Texans point out about our favorite supermarket—while you’ll find many of the same products across all stores, no two H-E-Bs have exactly the same stock. Even if they’re exactly the same size. This is because H-E-B truly knows their neighbors.
In Austin alone, I’ve found that the stores on the east side of town are totally different than the north, south or west. This is because they take their neighborhoods into account when they determine what to stock. One store has a more thorough Mexican food section (I’ve found prickly pears and a wide array of Mexican candies at the Oltorf store), another has an expanded Organic section (and a surplus of soccer moms, at the Westlake location). I’ll even go out of my way to the Tech Ridge store because their International aisle is huge (with refrigerators!) and I can stock up on my favorite European candy and inexpensive herbs.
You’d be hard pressed to find a better craft beer selection (with better prices) than H-E-B’s aisles. They offer a “build your own 6 pack” option, so those wanting to sample a few brews before committing to a six or twelve pack can do so without worry. Obviously the larger stores can hold a bit more stock, but every store has an admirable selection of both wine and beer, whether it’s a single aisle or the whole middle of the store. They offer discounts for volume, so once you find a wine you enjoy it’s worth it to pick up a few bottles. And move over Three Buck Chuck—H-E-B carries their own $3 wine for those with inexpensive tastes. As with all H-E-B products, they heavily favor local products, so many of the wine and beer they stock is from Texas. Pro tip: as I mentioned before, there tend to be more alcohol reps on weekends pouring tastes, so definitely take advantage of this if you’re looking for something new and fun to try.
If you love H-E-B, you’re in for a treat. The company also runs H-E-B Plus (an expanded store with a larger selection and an electronics department), Central Market (a health and organic food store that boasts the same reasonable prices H-E-B is known for), Mi Tienda (Latin influenced food) and Joe V’s Smartshop (a discount grocery store along the lines of Aldi). All of these stores are run with the same high quality and low prices that customers have come to expect from H-E-B.
Ashley Blom is a New Englander and haphazard foodie living in Austin, Texas. Her book, “How to Eat a Lobster” is coming from Quirk Books in 2017, and you can find her recipes and ramblings at forkingup.com.