Toilet paper disappeared first. Then hand sanitizers, disinfectants, beans, rice, and canned goods. Next on the list: bacon and hamburger meat. As the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools and shut down businesses and events across the nation in March, consumers began panic shopping. In the Highland Lakes, H-E-B grocery stores in Marble Falls, Burnet, and Kingsland were ready — for just about everything but the run on bath tissue.
“The company gave us some good directions,” said Monty Young, top store leader at the Kingsland H-E-B. “They set us up for success. I think the surprise everyone had was the run on toilet paper. That was insane.”
The run on dry goods was anticipated. The Kingsland store sold in two weeks the same amount of rice, beans, and canned goods it would normally sell in six to eight months. Paper products only lasted a few hours each day. Time and personnel to restock shelves was the only real problem.
At the Marble Falls store, which is bigger than the Kingsland location, items disappeared even more quickly. On one early morning in mid-March, toilet paper shelves emptied within eight minutes of the doors opening. On that particular day, a police officer was stationed at the paper aisle, although all three managers said they did not request police protection at any time. In fact, they said, none was ever needed, even during peak panic periods.
H-E-B’s handling of the pandemic set an example nationwide for how a corporation can work successfully to feed the populace and maintain calm. An article in Texas Monthly magazine extolled the company for its early preparation, transparent communication, and organized rollout of a well-laid pandemic plan.
“We have been working on our pandemic and influenza plan for quite awhile now, since 2005, when we had the threat of H5N1 (bird flu) overseas in China,” Justen Noakes, director of emergency preparedness, told Texas Monthly. “We’ve continued to revise it, and it’s been part of our preparedness plan at H-E-B ever since.”
The San Antonio-based grocer gains and retains experience in implementation after every major disaster, including Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Gulf Coast communities are especially used to having their local H-E-B ready with ample water, batteries, and pantry staples.
The company took care of more than the customers. It also made sure employees, which the company calls partners after implementing an employee ownership plan in 2015, were rewarded for their extra efforts in pay, benefits, and safety measures.
“Corporate has recognized our partners’ hard work,” said Steven McKinney, top store leader at the Burnet H-E-B. “We started early with wearing masks, sanitizing the store, and putting up plexiglass to protect the partners and our customers.”
Administrators showed up at stores to serve as cashiers, stockers, and baggers. Personnel were deployed statewide according to need.
“We sent thirteen people to help stock the Houston stores,” McKinney said. “The deli, bakery, and floral departments all pulled back so those employees could help in other areas.”
Most ended up stocking shelves. Corporate cut store hours companywide to 8 a.m.-8 p.m., including at bigger stores such as Marble Falls, which is usually open from 6 a.m. to midnight. Placards and signage were placed throughout the buildings to help with social distancing, hand sanitizing stations were set up, and grocery carts are still being wiped down between use.
What customers don’t see behind the scenes is a sanitization checklist for high-traffic areas and touchpoints and regular staff “huddles” to discuss safety measures and talk about each day’s procedural changes.
Every policy the company implemented, whether to protect the health and safety of customers and partners or make sure shelves were fully stocked, has been handled in an orderly fashion due to years of planning and the corporate-wide attitude of providing community support, said H-E-B President Craig Boyan in the Texas Monthly article.
“We take being a strong emergency responder in Texas, to take care of Texas communities, very seriously,” he said.
Boyan’s sentiment is echoed by the Highland Lakes managers.
“We are really proud to be Texans and help Texans and be sure that everyone can have what they need to take care of their family,” said McKinney of the Burnet H-E-B. “To be able to do that is an honor.”
Young of the Kingsland location looked back a few years at other hardships the community has faced.
“It’s been a real tumultuous two years out here,” he said. “We just got our (RM 2900) bridge back a year ago. Two years ago October that bridge was washed out (during historic flooding). I’m proud of how we’ve handled these situations as a company. The direction they gave was precise and robust, and we followed it to a T.”
Boyan’s remarks about first responders gave Gill of the Marble Falls H-E-B a renewed sense of pride in his work and his store.
“For me, it gave me confidence in knowing that our company is well-prepared for something like this, even though we haven’t ever seen anything quite like this before,” he said. “It gave me confidence knowing our company had a plan for this and that we could learn and adapt as the situations changed.”
By now, as you read this, your local H-E-B grocery store should be almost back to normal as far as hours and product availability go. Management promises a steady supply of food, cleaners, and paper goods, though some brands might not always be available. The social distancing markers, masks, sanitizing, and plexiglass barriers are going to be around awhile longer.
“Every day as you come in, there could be something that changes,” Gill said. “That’s OK. We adapt quickly, and that’s something we are proud of as well.”
H-E-B Crisis Response Timeline
2005: Developed a plan for product availability and customer/partner safety when H5N1 (bird flu) first hit China.
2009: Utilized the 2005 plan when H1N1 (swine flu) hit Cibolo in South Texas.
2017: Implemented disaster plan for Hurricane Harvey, which hit the Gulf Coast in August, devastating much of the coastal communities from Corpus Christi to Orange.
JANUARY 2020: Began tracking COVID-19 activity in China, Italy, and Spain, contacting suppliers about future availability.
FEBRUARY 2, 2020: Started implementation of its disaster plan as COVID-19 cases began showing up in the United States. The first COVID-19 case in Texas was recorded on February 19.
MARCH 4: Set up an Emergency Operations Center in a new 16-million-square-foot regional warehouse in San Antonio. Also began limiting sales of certain items, including paper products, hand sanitizer, and disinfectants.
MARCH 11: First big spike in panic shopping, the same day the president first publicly addressed the pandemic, the NBA canceled its basketball season, and Tom Hanks and wife Rita Wilson announced they had both contracted the disease.
MARCH 13: Panic buying spikes again after NCAA cancels March Madness and secondary schools, colleges, and universities, many of which were going into Spring Break that weekend, began to announce closures.
MARCH 14: H-E-B reduces all store hours to 8 a.m.-8 p.m.
MARCH 16-22: Spring Break and panic shopping converge into a perfect storm. On March 16, Gov. Greg Abbott closed restaurants, putting even more pressure on grocery stores to feed communities.
APRIL 27: Returned store hours to 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Marble Falls returned to 6 a.m. to midnight. All stores still limiting sales on some supplies, most recently meats because of a slowdown at meat packing plants, which became COVID-19 hot spots.
JUNE 23: Made $2/hour pay increase permanent for all employees because “this crisis will be around an indeterminate time,” according to an H-E-B news release.
JULY 1: Required customers at all H-E-B stores statewide to wear face masks.