When Central Market opened in 1994, few people had heard of a grocery store that didn’t sell laundry detergent.
Supermarkets, after all, were designed as a one-stop shop for household needs, from food to toiletries, where shoppers could get in and out quickly and with ease. Customers might be hungry, but they were headed home to cook and eat, so why bother selling hot food beyond what they might take home to feed their families?
But in the early 1990s, H-E-B started working on a new concept: a high-end grocery store that would feature hard-to-find ingredients and untold new varieties of wine and cheese and that would cater to the kind of cook who wasn’t necessarily shopping to save money or time.
On Jan. 22, 1994, Central Market opened its first location on North Lamar Boulevard with hundreds of products that were hard to get elsewhere, four in-house eateries and aisles that were in a serpentine maze, a nouveau layout that took customers through each section of the store, introducing “slow food” before the Italian concept had really taken hold in the U.S.
It was only a year after the Food Network had debuted a 24-hour food channel, when American culinary tastes were expanding, but without access to the kinds of ingredients we were starting to see on TV and in food magazines, our collective imagination about what food could be needed a little nudge.
A foodie tourist destination
To modern-day shoppers, the original Central Market might not feel like the amusement park it once was because so many stores, including everyday H-E-Bs, have similar elements, from a larger prepared foods section to an in-store restaurant or a large cheese and wine section, but when this 84,000-square-foot store first opened, it quickly became one of Austin’s top tourist destinations.
Among the most popular features of the new store were the in-house restaurants, which included a barbecue eatery called Cowboy Kitchen.
Store officials had expected 40,000 customers in the restaurants each week, but when they served more than 98,000 patrons in the first week, they had to rethink everything from the menu to how they cooked the food, says Nancy Fernandez, who continues to work as a back-of-house cook in the cafe. “It was exciting to put your hands on the best food in the world,” Fernandez says. “Not every chef or cook gets that opportunity.”
On opening day, crowds were thickest at the checkout lines. “Customers ate up the concept,” says Liz Taylor-Culpon, who now works in a department called shelf edge, which updates the prices on the shelves throughout the store. Because Central Market didn’t sell everyday items, they opened a side store called RX Express that carried Lay’s potato chips, Coca-Cola, candies, prescription medicine and even VHS tapes, but they closed that store a few years after the opening.
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Fernandez and Taylor-Culpon are two of more than half a dozen staffers who have worked at the original location since it opened.
“We’d get these artichokes that were this big,” says perishables director Mark Henson, holding his hands up to his face. “We called them baby’s head artichokes. Peppers, too.” Henson was hired the fall before the store opened. He’d worked at an H-E-B, so he knew how the grocery industry worked, but he’d never dealt with such a variety of fresh produce, including star fruit, Champagne grapes or fiddlehead ferns.
Jeanette Aleman started in the bakery department, where she worked on the tortilla line, but she quickly learned a lot about European breads. “Our bakery looked like it never closed,” she says. “Every 30 minutes, fresh bread would come out.” Aleman eventually moved to the produce section and then into the cheese department, where the store has gone from having 400 kinds of cheese to about 800 during the holiday season.
“There’s a constant education,” Aleman says. “Every department is always learning new things; that’s why I like it.”
Obdulio Torres also started on the tortilla machine, and then he moved into general baking. Now, he’s the pie king, overseeing many of the store’s pies, scones and tarts, including those glossy fruit-topped tarts that are right at the eye-level of every kid walking through the store with a parent. “I like making all of it,” he says.
Kirk Riley had worked at the seafood counter at Simon David, an upscale grocery store from Tom Thumb that had a few locations in Dallas and one in the Arboretum. Although the Austin store opened in 1986, it closed in 1996, likely due to competition from the new venture from H-E-B, which was already the state’s dominant grocery brand.
He started in seafood at Central Market, serving then-Gov. Ann Richards a shrimp off a platter on opening night, his claim to fame, but then moved to several other departments, eventually landing in the bulk section, where he now manages the more than 400 spices and hundreds of other grains, legumes, flours and other unpackaged items.
“Customers have changed a lot,” he says. “Their taste has evolved with the store. You get more in-depth questions about food now.”
Riley says that he’s started noticing the second-generation shoppers. “A lot of people grew up coming here, and we're now waiting on the children of the customers we were waiting on back then,” he says. “They've got everything their parents learned, and they've been exposed to it for 25 years, so their whole life has been experiencing this kind of food.”
All of the longtime staffers said their own food tastes have changed because of working at the store — they get discounts on the food and can take one cooking class per month for free, as a company perk — but the bond between them and the customers is what feels equally as remarkable.
“I have a love for everybody,” Taylor-Culpon says. “Just like a sister and brother.” Aleman agrees. Although she says she wants to retire eventually, it won't be anytime soon. “You’ve got to enjoy what you do,” she says. “It’s like a marriage, and you’ve got to work at it. Talk it out, go through things, you know?”
Expanding tastes, competition
Central Market started hosting events soon after the opening to fan those foodie flames. The most successful of which was, of course, the Hatch chile celebration, which continues to be a popular way to debut new products. Many other stores now sell Hatch chile products, but Fernandez says that’s to be expected.
“The demand has gone up,” Fernandez says. “We've created the demand, and now other people have what we offered. That's capitalism.”
In the first three years after Central Market opened in Austin, Whole Foods, Albertsons and Randalls all opened their own stores with similar innovations, including hiring sushi chefs, according to one 1997 article from the Austin American-Statesman.
The second Central Market opened in San Antonio in 1998, followed by the South Austin location in 1999. Houston got its first store in 2001, followed not long after by Fort Worth, Plano and Dallas. Since 2006, Central Market has added three more stores in the Dallas area, the latest in September of last year. (John Campbell, the H-E-B executive credited as the founder of the Central Market concept and who was highly visible at the time of the opening, was arrested in 2014 on child pornography charges in San Antonio. He was fired immediately and in 2018 was sentenced to 10 years in prison.)
Having more stores was good for the overall brand, but it also meant that people weren't driving in from across the state to shop at the original location. When there was only one store, Henson recalls, they might have 20 varieties of mushrooms, but now they have to make sure there is enough to go around to the other nine locations.
Another change is the availability of produce grown locally. When there weren’t as many farmers markets, community-supported agriculture programs and other stores vying for local produce, Central Market worked with a number of area growers, but Hanson says that number has dwindled to about three. “Customers wouldn’t be able to tell the difference, but you’re seeing a lot of local farmers go under these days.”
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Sparking culinary creativity
Dorothy Drummer was one of the Austinites who was at Central Market on opening day in 1994. She’d moved from Manhattan to Texas in the 1980s, and she had to mail order many of her favorite specialty products. “Just to learn the way it was set up was so different,” she says.
Fiesta had been the only supermarket in town that offered some of the international ingredients she sought, but Central Market had all the cheeses, meats and wines that her favorite small shops in Greenwich Village used to offer.
“You couldn’t get Diet Coke,” she says, “so you had to adjust some things,” but on the first day, she filled her cart with items she never knew she wanted. The lines at the checkout stand were so long, though, that she asked if she could hide her cart in the back and come back to pay after lunch. When she came back for the second time, they couldn’t find the cart at first, but eventually they did, and she walked out with the first of hundreds of carts full of food.
“There was this thrill of finding things that I didn’t have to order,” she says.
Drummer, who is an executive search consultant, says that having so much variety in one place undoubtedly made her a better cook, in part because of the helpfulness of the staff. “They want you to taste samples of things. They want you to have that food adventure.”
She says Central Market brought “an explosion of wonderfulness” to Austin. “I'm not an artist, but cooking is my creative outlet, and it was like finding a new art store with incredible paints and mediums,” she says. “I get so inspired when I go in there. The fun of it is not knowing what I'm going to make and then finding something wonderful to cook.”
Chicago native Jayna Burgdorf says she and her husband used to lament that Austin wasn’t much of a food town, but that all changed right around the time Central Market opened.
They were at the store on opening day with their 6-week-old son, Bartyn, who continued to shop with them throughout his childhood. She eventually started shopping at the South Austin location, but Central Market remains her go-to when she and Barry want a date night.
“I love the loyalty of the employees,” she says. “Everyone treats each other with so much respect. Everyone wants to make such a great store. It's a sign of a good organization when someone stays that long. I recognize people who I know have been there for years, and I see a tinge of gray in their hair.”
Changing with the times
Even though the products that once felt exclusive to Central Market are more widely available now, plenty of loyal customers shop there weekly. Henson says they still get a lunch rush from the hospital next door, particularly in the grab-and-go section, an evolution of the prepared foods bar that was part of the store when it first opened.
Shoppers still seek high-end food, but they also want convenience, Taylor-Culpon says. Hurried shoppers are also why Central Market added shortcuts to the maze, making it easier to go from one section of the store to another without going through every aisle.
Although both of the Austin locations of Central Market operate somewhat independently, both stores have heavily invested in curbside and delivery technology. Fernandez says that doesn’t mean there are fewer people in the stores, though, just slightly fewer cars in the parking lot.
For all the changes at the store, some things have remained the same.
Jose Abundis is one of the few employees who has been working in the same department for all 25 years. When Aleman got the last job on the tortilla line, he went to the produce department, where he learned how to set up giant piles of apples that wouldn’t topple over.
Henson says that Abundis’ claim to fame is how he stacks the ice that keeps the broccoli, cauliflower, green onions and cabbage cold. “When we first opened, ice would fall all over the floor, but he figured out how to roll the top,” Henson says. “He set the standard on that.”
Abundis continues to work nights, making sure that the sprawling produce section is perfectly set by the time doors open at 8 a.m.
"The boxes are getting heavier as the years go by," Abundis says.