Loving Libbie mac and cheese at H-E-B brings new meaning to comfort food
Becky Nichols' daughter really loved macaroni and cheese.
She was born with leukemia, and while she was in and out of hospitals, she often struggled to eat. Sometimes a creamy bowl of cheesy pasta or chicken and dumplings was the only thing she could stomach.
Libbie died on Good Friday in 2004. She was 5 years old and about ready to finish kindergarten, Nichols says, but she was wise beyond her years. During her hospital stays, nurses, social workers and volunteers would drop off little toys and stuffed animals to brighten her day. In turn, Libbie would give those gifts to people who came to visit her. “She understood that the gift was in the giving,” Nichols said.
Nichols and her husband, John, and son, Buster, were devastated when Libbie died, but Nichols says now that the only thing she knew to do with her grief was channel it into supporting families who were going through what they'd just suffered. She opened the Bountiful Cafe in West Lake Hills in 2006, which helped keep her daughter’s memory alive through cookies in the shape of Libbie’s signature gesture: “I love you” in sign language.
What the restaurant really provided was a place for Nichols to make comfort food, birthday cakes and Thanksgiving dinners that she would then deliver to children’s medical centers for other families, nurses, doctors and anyone who needed a meal and a hug. She created the Loving Libbie Memorial Foundation, and for years, Nichols hosted a party through the organization for Libbie’s birthday that raised money for the ongoing food donations.
Nichols says her daughter’s determined spirit inspired her to continue working with families who were going through these life-changing illnesses and the staff that cares for them.
“Libbie was strong and feisty and so mature,” says Nichols. “She knew she was here for a specific reason. No one was going to get in her way.”
Nichols eventually closed the cafe and opened a food truck so she could take the hospitality (and warm chicken and dumplings) on the road. She was happy helping the families she could, but she wanted to do more. To expand, however, the nonprofit would need more revenue.
The idea of selling some of her products in a grocery store came to mind, but she didn't know where to start. In order to hire a food consultant to figure it out, Nichols sought outside financing; when that failed, she decided to apply for the Quest for Texas Best, H-E-B's annual program to develop up-and-coming food businesses in Texas.
Last year, Loving Libbie beat out hundreds of other applicants to make the top 25, and even though she didn’t win one of the top three spots, H-E-B started to work with her on redesigning the packaging and bringing the product to market anyway.
Jody Hall, the director of global sourcing for H-E-B who oversees the Quest competition, pointed out that the grocery store was founded by a woman with a sick husband and three young boys, so Nichols’ story was particularly meaningful.
“From the day I met Becky, we realized that she had a story that was rich and was from a mother’s heart,” Hall says. “She started this not only for her own daughter but for the other parents whose children are dealing with life-threatening illnesses.”
Hall says that one of the H-E-B designers in San Antonio had a child who spent months in the hospital. “He stepped up to ask if he could design the package,” he says. “They met and felt a common bond,” and they worked the Libbie story into the packaging. And instead of a square UPC, they went with a heart-shaped one. “That has meaning for us,” Hall says.
The San Antonio-based grocer is selling the regular macaroni and cheese and a green chile variety ($2.98 for 10 ounces) at 237 stores across Texas, and all of the proceeds go back to Nichols’ mission of keeping the fridges at children’s hospitals and medical centers full of food so the families whose children are sick can feel loved on their birthdays and holidays.
“In the beginning, we started this because it made me feel better,” she told the crowd that gathered at the end of the freezer aisle during a busy Monday evening last week at the Mueller H-E-B, not far from Dell Children’s Medical Center and several other clinics where Nichols has made countless deliveries over the years.
“At a time when you have so little control, to know that you can do something, it feels so special,” she said. “And now it’s making other people feel better. All this is for them.”
In the crowd were Anissa Robinson and her sons, Jaevin and Treylin, who were 5 and 2 when they were featured in the Statesman Season for Caring campaign. Both have sickle cell anemia, and although they were well enough to attend the celebration on Monday, Jaevin, now 11, recently spent 37 days at a hospital in San Antonio.
Robinson says that she and Nichols met during another hospital stay at Dell Children’s, when Nichols was delivering Halloween cupcakes for the young patients to decorate. Six years later, they have become close friends. “She’s always texting me to ask how I’m doing and what I need,” she says. “I’ve really needed that support.”
Nichols says that after 13 years of cooking, coordinating, checking in on friends like Robinson and building a nonprofit and now a food business, she feels like her daughter is with her more than ever.
“Other people speaking her name and knowing about her has helped ease my grief for years,” she says. “I have loved Libbie through my work with Loving Libbie. I can't ever love her less, so this will all continue to grow as my love for her deepens even now after she’s been gone.”