‘Disney World for Food Lovers:’ Peek at new H-E-B before Wed. opening

By Charlotte Aguilar

A “Walt Disney World for Food Lovers,” was how store leader Hugh Sintic described the new Bellaire H-E-B Tuesday  at a preview luncheon, ribbon-cutting and tour for a group of local business and community leaders.

With two levels — H-E-B’s first such venture in the Houston area — and boasting 78,000 square feet, the tour was more of a trek through what Sintic labeled a “destination for grocery shopping” and a chance to meet the store team who had gone through “extensive hospitality training” to serve customers.

For a little magic, the foyer is distinguished by a commissioned interactive artwork, “Blue By You,” by Ansen Seale, which changes color as a visitor moves through it. The store features elevators and side-by-side escalators — one for humans, one for their carts — to go between the upstairs grocery floor and the larger parking area below.  A red light-green light monitored ramp to control traffic flow leads to about 100 parking spaces on the second floor.

The grocery itself appears rather conventional in design — the usual shelves (rows about 8-feet wide), coolers and cases and a bank of 15 checkout counters. It’s the vast floor space and selection — 40,000 different “SKUs” (stock-keeping units or items) that set the new market apart from the humble old Pantry store that stood on the site at 5130 Cedar St. since the 1990s. Sintic pointed with pride to more than 30 feet of yogurts, for instance, imported foods, and robust Kosher sections that include baked products from New York, cheese and meats.

There are also prepared meals, artisan breads and other baked goods and fancy cakes, all baked in-store, sushi made on the spot, fresh seafood shipped in daily, and an expansive butcher counter with prime and Kobe beef and a case for dry-aged beef that can be pre-ordered and aged to the customer’s liking. Large produce sections, an emphasis on healthy items, and a floral department — even shelves of small appliances such as blenders and instant pots — were on the tour.

Sampling opportunities are dotted on the perimeter — fresh juices, cheeses, and a “Cooking Connection” station to nosh and learn how to prepare simple gourmet meals at home.

Drawing the most interest from the preview crowd: What Sintic calls “H-E-B happy hour from 3 to 7 daily” — a wine and craft beer sampling station which will feature ever-changing offerings from the store’s large selection.

In August, a Roastery coffeehouse will open on the second floor, Sintic said.

Shoppers can download a mobile app that will aid them in locating items, as well as shop for curbside pickup or grocery delivery from the Favor service, which H-E-B purchased earlier this year. Curbside orders can be placed when the store opens at 6 a.m., for 10 a.m. pickup, Sintic said.

For a touch of celebrity, H-E-B’s Houston-area president Scott McClelland — known for his commercials with sports heroes such as J.J. Watt and heroes from the World Champion Houston Astros — stopped in to shake hands and speak briefly at the luncheon.

The biggest news from him for the weather-ravaged Bellaire area: The new market boasts a “massive” generator. “We will never lose power,” McClelland proclaimed.

Company officials pointed out their commitment to each community in which they’re located, and to demonstrate, presented checks for $5,000 each to the Nature Discovery Center in Bellaire, and the local Undies for Everyone nonprofit.

Work crews still bustled about, other employees still neatening the stock or pricing items — but the store appeared ready to go.

”Rehearsals” for drivers at a Spruce Street second-floor loading dock had been going on for two weeks, and Sintic described “very careful orchestration of time slots” for 24/7 deliveries.

”We know that the business community and the residents are very concerned about the traffic, so we did our very best to organize our deliveries so we wouldn’t clog up any arteries,” he said.

Tour ending, it was back to getting ready for Wednesday’s 6 a.m. opening for Sintic. He said stocking of items with the shortest shelf life, such as freshly ground beef, would be going on at 2-3 Tuesday morning. “Then it will be business as usual — and we’ll do that every day, hopefully for the next 200 years,” he smiled.

”We can’t wait.”

For a full gallery of photos from Tuesday’s preview, including features of the new store, visit the InstantNewsBellaire.com Facebook page by clicking here.

H-E-B officials and Bellaire city and business leaders performed a ceremonial ribbon cutting at the new H-E-B Tuesday. (Photos by Charlotte Aguilar)

Store director Hugh Sintic, right, led a tour of the new market Tuesday.

Scott McClelland, Houston-area president of H-E-B, came in for the preview and chatted with Bellaire Mayor Andrew Friedberg.

With most of the parking below the store on the first floor, elevators and these side-by-side escalators — one for shoppers, the other for their carts — will be used to move between floors.

Attracting the most attention on the tour was this wine and beer sampling station — dubbed the “H-E-B Happy Hour” by Sintic, which will operate from 3-7 p.m. daily.