Off Brand

How Beloved Texas Grocer H-E-B Became the Ultimate Catastrophe Brand

The chain continues to deliver in hurricanes, pandemics — and now energy grid disasters

The recent Texas weather disaster and subsequent energy grid meltdown left many losers in its wake: residents, power companies, government regulators, and Ted Cruz. But the tragedy also produced at least one clear and unabashed winner: H-E-B, a 116-year-old, family-owned regional grocery chain based in San Antonio and already popular throughout much of the state.

At a moment when Mother Nature offered peril and institutions seemed helpless to respond, the mainstream grocer was open for business with stocked shelves, serving as an anchor of basic competence — and received glowing coverage for doing its job. It’s a halo effect most brands can only dream of, and it’s not the first time total catastrophe has, in effect, been good for H-E-B. The business editor of the San Antonio Express-News summed up the semiserious conventional wisdom that emerged on social media: “We’d all be better off if H-E-B took over the Texas power grid.”

At first it’s tempting to chalk up H-E-B fandom to traditional factors. A 2019 assessment of the cult of H-E-B in Eater noted the company’s reputation for good service and treating employees well, plus its unique food offerings, including Hatch chile cookies and its celebrated in-store True Texas BBQ chain. Almost all of H-E-B’s 350 or so stores are in Texas. (A few are in Mexico.) Outsize local affection for a hometown (or home state) grocer isn’t unusual, from Wegmans on the East Coast to Rouses in Louisiana to more rarified examples like upscale organic specialist Erewhon in Los Angeles. Sometimes there’s more of a love/hate vibe between such chains and their customers, but they still connect with regional identity. Maybe doubly so in this case, Eater noted: “After oil, Texas pride may be the state’s single most lucrative natural resource.”

Management already had a pandemic response plan to consult — developed in response to the H1N1 crisis a dozen years ago — and began communicating with and learning from retailers in China and Europe as early as January 2020.

But even taking all this into account, H-E-B’s vaunted status — perhaps especially as a kind of catastrophe brand — seems to boil down to something quite apart from the romance of place: raw logistical prowess. It turns out this isn’t the first time in recent years that H-E-B has stood out for its response to a disaster. Back in 2017, Texas Monthly compared the chain’s efforts in responding to Hurricane Harvey to those of the Red Cross and similar first responders, noting that it employs a full-time director of emergency preparedness and had several “relief units,” including three mobile kitchens, a disaster relief unit, and a pair of water tankers. “Even the staunchest H-E-B enthusiast might have been surprised,” the magazine observed, “to see the convoys of trucks, mobile kitchens, and other relief units branded with the store’s logos making their way to the affected areas” in Harvey’s wake.

In separate reports three years later, Texas Monthly documented the chain’s remarkable preparation for and response to the 2020 national crisis: the pandemic. Management already had a pandemic response plan to consult—developed in response to the H1N1 crisis a dozen years ago—and began communicating with and learning from retailers in China and Europe as early as January 2020. Aside from tweaking its supply chain as best it could, the company swiftly began limiting purchases of certain products, cutting store hours to allow more (and safer) restocking time, and setting up a coronavirus hotline for employees, “days or even weeks before other large supermarket chains implemented similar measures,” according to the magazine. It was also able to avoid some of the shortage issues competitors faced through controlling its own supply in certain categories — including running its own meatpacking plants. Many Texans, that Express-News column argued, now “look to H-E-B almost as a de facto arm of government.”

It’s this same practical, behind-the-scenes logistical strength that left H-E-B in a position to be a source of dependability and relief in the wake of last week’s winter storm crisis. The New York Times described shoppers grateful to find the stores open and relatively stocked, even if some purchases were limited. “There seems to be in our state a lack of real leadership, a lack of real efficiency, on the political level,” novelist Stephen Harrington commented. “But on the business level, when it comes to a grocery store, all of those things are in place.”

H-E-B’s vaunted status — perhaps especially as a kind of catastrophe brand — seems to boil down to something quite apart from the romance of place: raw logistical prowess.

And in a way, this actually does play to regionalism: Little is more central to Texan self-mythology than plain old no-nonsense, just-get-it-done competence. That, in fact, is why the state has historically prized the brutally efficient judgments of the marketplace over the perceived posturing and foot-dragging of government. Of course, that faith in minimally regulated markets is exactly what compounded this disaster.

So, it might be worth adjusting that thinking a little, even if there’s a highly efficient grocery store business ready to help when the markets screw everything up. Because, all wishful thinking aside, H-E-B may be a great company, but it is not in the power business.

Author The Art of Noticing. Related newsletter at https://robwalker.substack.com

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