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 in those early years, 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.
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 operated, 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 because of 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 a shrimp off a platter on opening night to then-Gov. Ann Richards, 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, one of which is closed for remodeling.
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."
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.
Central Market’s parent company, H-E-B, has had stores in the Austin area for more than 80 years. Here are some things you might not have known about Austin’s largest grocery.
• The first store was in Kerrville, where Florence Butt opened the store in 1905 so she could make enough money to raise her three boys while her husband was ill. He died in 1915.
• In 1938, H-E-B Foods purchased four Piggly Wiggly stores in Austin, prompting jests that the merged firm would be called "Wiggly Butt."
• In 1938, a loaf of bread went for 9 cents, and hamburger sold for 13 cents a pound.
• H-E-B did not change the names of the Piggly Wiggly stores until the mid-1940s, at which time there were six H-E-B stores in Austin and two new H-E-B supermarkets, which had larger inventory and included a butcher shop and a bakery.
• H-E-B Store No. 1, located at 117 W. Sixth St., closed in 1950. Four years later, the handsome, modernist Starr Building — still there — rose in its place.
• The TarryTown Shopping Center, which opened in 1939 at Windsor Road and Exposition Boulevard, later became the second site for one of the shiny, streamlined H-E-B supermarkets, which were larger than the "stores." The first supermarket was on South Congress Avenue.
• South Congress Avenue has always attracted H-E-B stores; the current store at Oltorf Street and South Congress Avenue opened in 1957 and was the third H-E-B on that street.
• The old H-E-B on the southeast corner of Red River and East Sixth streets was positioned in the 1940s and ’50s to serve the most integrated commercial intersection in Austin; nearby were Lebanese, Chinese, Latino, African-American and Anglo businesses.
• Early on, H-E-B was firmly established in East Austin at East First and Waller streets; later, big stores would come to East Seventh Street and, south of the river, to East Riverside Drive.
• Back when he was a store manager in the 1980s, Jeff Thomas, who now oversees H-E-B in Central Texas, once dropped 1,000 pingpong balls with prize numbers on them from a helicopter at the old Westgate store; the balls scattered everywhere, causing chaos.
• In 1986, H-E-B devised a special orange-and-white cake to honor the victorious University of Texas Longhorns football team; at an 80th anniversary event in August to celebrate the store’s milestone in Austin, Howard Butt III joked, "Maybe we need to bring that cake back."
• Today, H-E-B is the biggest retailer in Texas and No. 20 in the nation, according to the National Retail Foundation. The company is also the largest privately held employer in Texas.
• H-E-B operates 24 stores in the Austin area and more than 50 in the wider Central Texas region.
• H-E-B employs more than 14,000 partners in the Austin area. The Central Texas store with the most employees is the Kyle H-E-B Plus, which employs 600 people.
• In 2005, H-E-B opened the first of its Plus stores, stocked with many more nonfood goods, such as electronics. One of those was Round Rock No. 4.
• H-E-B opened its first store in Mexico in 1997. It now has 51 stores south of the border.
• In 2016, the company bought more than 17 acres of land in Del Valle near the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, but it hasn’t announced when a store might open there.
• H-E-B doesn’t have any locations in Dallas or Fort Worth, but some have opened in the far suburbs, and the company has been buying up land there with increasing frequency in the past few years.
• In 2018, H-E-B purchased Favor, the Austin-based delivery service operated by Jag Bath, who continues to work for the company as its chief digital officer. Last year, the company opened an 81,000-square-foot digital headquarters in East Austin, where the Favor team is housed.
• As delivery and curbside have become more mainstream, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, H-E-B has greatly expanded both programs. More than 20 Austin-area stores offer curbside.
• In August, H-E-B opened its first food hall in the Mueller store, where customers can order food from six in-store restaurants. This is the company’s first food court-style eatery in the state.
• In Kerrville, where curbside pickup only recently began, Florence Butt offered delivery services in a red wagon and then a Model T when she first opened the H-E-B there.
• The company has a replica of that vehicle at its San Antonio headquarters, which is called the Arsenal because it is located in former military barracks that date back to the mid-1800s.
• H-E-B has a supersize, 11-foot-tall grocery cart on wheels, hand-built by partner Carroll Wesch in San Antonio in 2011.
• In the past five years, with the financial help from the H-E-B Tournament of Champions golf fundraiser, H-E-B has given away 25 mortgage-free, fully furnished homes to severely wounded veterans across Texas, including in Elgin and Lakeway.
• Austin’s Mueller store, which opened in 2013 and uses half the power and water of a typical grocery store, is certified LEED Gold and has a 4-Star Austin Energy Green Building Rating of Distinction. It’s the kind of store that architects visit and put on their top 10 lists and where the company tests other green initiatives.
• Forbes reports that H-E-B CEO Charles Butt, who has owned at least one Austin residence, and his family are worth $10.7 billion; the company donates 5 percent of pre-tax profits to charity.
• H-E-B receives thousands of requests for charity donations a year; they also respond rapidly and effectively to hurricanes, tornadoes, fires and floods. During Hurricane Harvey, they distributed more than 43 truckloads of water and 15 truckloads of ice.
• The company has three mobile kitchens to aid in disaster relief. Two are 57 feet long and can serve more than 6,000 meals per hour; a smaller third mobile kitchen was added after Hurricane Harvey. When shelters opened in Austin during the hurricane, H-E-B disaster teams moved their services here to provide meals.
• The name "H-E-B" can be found on sports arenas and other public spaces; the H-E-B at 80 celebration was on the H-E-B Terrace of the Long Center.
• For its 80th anniversary in Austin, H-E-B gave $10,000 each to the Seton Healthcare Family, Central Texas Food Bank, Zach Theatre, AGE of Central Texas, Creative Action, Austin Classical Guitar, Austin Sustainable Food Center and the Trail Foundation.
• H-E-B is an active backer of the Trail of Lights, Zilker Kite Festival and Austin Fourth of July Fireworks. For more than 20 years, the company has hosted free Thanksgiving dinners through its Feast of Sharing events in cities across Texas, including Austin.
• H-E-Buddy is the name of the company’s kid-friendly mascot, an anthropomorphic grocery bag that promotes healthy eating. Many stores have a spinning wheel game that kids can play by using "Buddy Bucks" to win prizes.