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Culture / Restaurants

Crazy Crowd at Houston’s “Best Grocery Store” Delights Low-Key Billionaire

$10 Million Renovation Draws a Surprise Star

BY // 05.22.17

It starts with about a dozen early birds milling around outside the front entrance and just keeps growing, and growing, and growing. By the time the ribbon cutting is 10 minutes away, there is practically no room to move outside. It looks like the line for a rock star’s appearance.

Instead, it’s the line for a grocery store. Only in Houston?

Standing off to the side, just inside the Houston Central Market’s front entrance, Stephen Butt takes it all in. Butt is part of the legendary but discrete billionaire Texas grocery store family that’s one of the richest families in America (they actually tied with The Rockefellers in Forbes magazine’s most recent Wealthiest Families rankings). Butt — who runs the H-E-B’s Central Market division — would prefer to be known as just another guy with a Central Market name tag on, though.

Butt is here to observe as much as celebrate. Sure, he’ll say a few words and participate in the ribbon cutting, but he almost blends in otherwise. He’s certainly not seeking out attention. He wears a simple sports coat and slacks. Central Market’s well-oiled public relations machine had the rest of the media out at the revamped store for a tour in the morning long before Butt (and the huge crowd) ever arrived. PaperCity will be the only publication he talks to during this Houston visit.

This low-key grocery titan doesn’t want press. He wants to see how Central Market’s customers, his customers, interact with $10 million in renovations and high-profile additions to the Houston store.

“People have loved this Central Market store for 16 years,” Butt says. “We want to give them the latest version of a great thing.”

So far, so crowded. More than 600 people showed up for the ribbon cutting and Taste of the South stroll. The bags of Central Market goodies handed out to the first 500 devotees quickly disappeared — and stragglers asked anyone they came across where they could get themselves a bag.

And who just happened to show? Houston rock star chef Hugo Ortega, the newly crowned James Beard Award winner, stood on the side in his Xochi chef frock just taking it all in. Ortega was not here for a cooking demonstration or official event. He just came as a fan of good food in his adopted city.

“It’s the best store in Texas by a mile,” Ortega says, smiling at the chaotic scene. “I don’t live far from here and this is my market.

“I just wanted to come out and support something good in Houston. That’s what we do in Houston.”

Ortega’s sister Veronica works as a food services manager at the Houston Central Market and his kids went to nearby River Oaks Elementary School. Hugo Ortega’s made restaurant meals using things he’s found at Central Market. In many ways, this is the store that introduced Houston to gourmet grocery.

Now, it’s trying to raise the bar again.

Having your own chocolate bar is one way to do that. Central Market will now make its own chocolate, making the Houston store the first grocery store in America to pull off such a feat as far as anyone can determine. Now, Johnny Depp just needs to visit wearing a top hat.

Everyone else seemed to on opening night. There’s Brendan O’Connell, the so-called Walmart artist who’s been profiled in The New Yorker by Susan Orlean and counts Alec Baldwin among his close friends. O’Connell paints almost poetic scenes from grocery stores and he did one of Houston’s Central Market that will be displayed prominently at Hobby Airport. (Coming back to America in Hobby’s international terminal, look up — and you’ll see.)

An Arty Supermarket

H-E-B Houston president Scott McClelland (J.J. Watt’s co-stars in those TV commercials) and O’Connell built a quick rapport when O’Connell first found art fame and McClelland was a step ahead of almost everyone again. “The first two people who called me after The New Yorker article came out were (late night TV host) Stephen Colbert and Scott McClelland,” O’Connell tells PaperCity.

The artist ended up on Colbert’s show and some of his work is hanging in McClelland’s house. More importantly from O’Connell’s perspective, his friendship with McClelland has given him access to some great grocery store scenes.

“I just told him, ‘Boy, do I have a grocery store for you,’ ” McClelland says. “That’s all it took.”

Regular folks tend to need a little more convincing — especially in today’s uber competitive gourmet grocery store marketplace. Central Market Houston’s $10 million renovation which opened up about 10,000 more square feet of space helps make the case.

Central Market unveiled the first tasting bar for olive oil.

Remember how cramped it used to be to navigate the tight, winding produce department on busy days? No more. Now, Central Market’s produce department is a third bigger and its cornucopia of colors jumps out even more when carts aren’t banging into each other to get by.

The wine area’s been given room to breathe as well — and it is much easier to see just how many vino choices you have (the store carries more than 2,500 bottles and has 185 different varieties on prominent display).

Remember the old olive oil section? OK, you don’t because no one remembers an olive oil section. But you’ll certainly remember this revamped Central Market’s new olive oil shrine because it is centered around a gleaming olive oil tasting machine that looks like it comes straight out of some fevered, futuristic grocery store dream. Step right up to the olive oil bar!  

Which is sort of the point. Just ask the quiet billionaire on the side who spent three years with his team obsessing over every detail of this $10 million revamp renewal.

“Customers want a wider range of things as their tastes grow,” Butt says. “We’re trying to evolve as our customers’ tastes evolve. They want more and more varieties. They want more flavors.”

“It’s the best store in Texas by a mile,” Hugo Ortega says, smiling at the chaotic scene.

Stephen Butt knows he and his family aren’t the show. The stores themselves are. That’s why the Houston Central Market’s parking lot turns into I-45 at rush hour for a simple ribbon cutting, why more than 600 people show up to wait outside on a muggy weekday afternoon.

“This is a destination store that people will drive up to 25 miles to go to weekly,” Butt says. “In a competitive market such as Houston with so many retail offerings, we have to be outstanding.

“That’s why we’re motivated… There’s not another store like this. We have one location in Houston. We have to do it right.”

Getting this crowd — and an unarranged drop by from a James Beard winning chef — is not a bad start. Butt will jet back home to Dallas with something to build on. Who needs a rock star when you have groceries?

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