When Ophie Garcia walked into her first day on the job at H-E-B, she was a 27-year-old mother who was thrilled to be making 75 cents an hour selling tobacco.
It was the mid-1960s — just a few days before New Year’s Day 1965, to be exact — and Garcia had already been working for more than 15 years.
She grew up in a migrant community in South Texas, and when her father died when she was in eighth grade, she knew she had to get a job, either in the fields or somewhere else.
“You’re too young to be picking cotton and tomatoes,” she recalls the local drugstore owner telling her; instead, he offered her a job as a soda jerk, making sandwiches and serving customers who came in for a bite to eat.
Eventually, she was earning 35 cents an hour. But then the H-E-B in Harlingen offered twice what she was making at the drugstore.
On Dec. 29, 1964, she walked into the Harlingen store with a sandwich lunch in hand. She didn’t know anything about tobacco, but by February, she was working full time in that department.
“I was a migrant worker, and I didn’t have an education,” she says. “I had to learn about the H-E-B culture.”
After a few years selling tobacco, Garcia started learning general merchandise, which included health, hair and skin care products, and the mother of four eventually specialized in cosmetics, where she has worked for more than four decades.
In 1988, Garcia moved to Austin because of her husband’s job, and now, at 81, she is the longest-tenured partner in the chain. With nearly 54 years of service, she continues to work 38 1/2 hours a week at the Oak Hill store. She can remember the address of every store and every manager she’s ever worked for.
“To me, it was a school, and I was getting paid for it,” she says. “We spoke more Spanish than anything else, so working in the store helped improve my English.”
She also learned about the latest beauty trends and how to run inventory for a retail store.
“They taught us how to dye and cut hair, and I learned how to do the inventory and recommend products,” she says. “But I also learned what medicine to recommend when babies or the elders come in. I had to know what we offered for them.”
In the early days, she sold Max Factor and Dewberry products, and as new brands became popular, including Revlon, L’Oreal and Almay, Garcia evolved with the industry.
She’s always dyed her own hair — dark around the face and light on top — and instructs customers on how to do the same. She can also tell them how to replicate the glittery rainbow eye shadow she often wears.
“Right now, there’s so much competition with this Amazon thing,” she says. “So we're trying to give the best customer service."
Garcia says her favorite part of the job now is working with customers in the stores and translating at the pharmacy. Every month, she goes into the community to tell people about the free health screenings offered on the second Tuesday of the month at most of the H-E-Bs in Texas.
Garcia started at H-E-B about the same time that Charles Butt, the grandson of H-E-B founder Florence Butt, took the reins of the company. They’ve become close friends over the years. She was going to retire a few years ago after the company threw her a party to celebrate 51 years of service, but she wasn’t ready to leave, so she reached out to Butt to get his advice.
“He said, ‘You do what you want to do,' so I stayed,” she says. “I’ve been real happy.”
The hardest part about her job might be saying goodbye to customers. “You don’t know how much it hurts when I find out my customers have passed away,” she says. “My customers and my partners mean a lot to me.”
Garcia and her husband have been married for 59 years and have four children, three daughters and a son, and all but one has worked at H-E-B: “She worked at a movie theater instead.”
Having worked so long for the same company, Garcia knows the H-E-Bs in Austin better than almost anyone. She knows her store in Oak Hill isn’t the busiest or fanciest in the city — it’s not "the Gucci store,” she says, referring to “Gucci-B,” the nickname that some Austinites use for the higher-end H-E-Bs in Westlake and Circle C — but it’s her home away from home. “It’s like family now.”
Butt, who at 80 also still works full time for the company, calls Garcia "one of the most special people."
"Ophie has a heart for people and offers encouragement to everyone she meets," he says. "Whether she’s in the store or out serving her community, Ophie is always going above and beyond to provide world-class customer service. I’m proud to be on her team."