H-E-B enters the homestretch for June 27 Bellaire opening
By Charlotte Aguilar
As they made final preparations, even the team in charge of the new Bellaire H-E-B admitted to feeling a smidgen of dread mixed in with their obvious excitement for the breakthrough new three-story market that’s set to open June 27.
“There are a lot of pieces to put together,” Hugh Sintic told a packed crowd of Bellaire business people at a preview breakfast. “Who knows? We might not even have enough parking.”
Parking is the major concern at the three-story giant looming over Bellaire’s downtown, with a sales floor totaling 78,000 square feet (for bragging rights, the West U-adjacent H-E-B is a mere 60,000 square feet). There will be 225 parking spaces under the main grocery and 75 spots at the second level, with entrances and exits along Bissonnet and Fifth streets. A complex red/green light system will direct motorists to available spaces on each floor (with an assist during the opening days from off-duty police officers).
Daytime employees will be required to park offsite in locations leased by H-E-B, and shuttles will be run back and forth to their workplace. Neighboring small businesses — some already displaced by H-E-B’s takeover of the strip center next to its old Pantry market where the new store stands — said recently they were stunned to find they are losing street parking. Previously, their customers were allowed to overflow-park in the H-E-B lot.
But parking isn’t the only concern. Sintic said that the store’s own semi-trucks will make seven-day-a-week deliveries of produce, meat, seafood, deli items and store-brand grocery items, and that deals were being made with top vendors (Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Frito-Lay had agreed so far) to deliver overnight to the imposing second-floor ramp and docks at the rear of the store on Spruce Street.
That’s a lot for the small businesses along Spruce to absorb. Although the trucks are being limited in their direction, there are concerns about how their traffic will flow onto the tight turn at South Rice Avenue.
“We’ve been working with H-E-B to ensure that portion of Spruce Street in front of the loading dock is reconstructed prior to the time of the store opening so that they aren’t disrupted by the Spruce Street project currently under design,” said Bellaire City Manager Paul Hofmann. “We have no regulation against their use of the loading dock overnight. The council did impose a condition that the delivery vehicles leave the area by traveling east on Spruce Street and enter from the west.”
The 24-hour deliveries are also of concern to some residents along Locust Street, which back up against the small businesses on Spruce.
Security has been another question. The Buffalo Speedway H-E-B has been plagued by a series of parking lot muggings in daylight hours, finally causing management to add an armed security patrol. Sintic told Essentials that unlike that store, which has no surveillance in the parking lots, the Bellaire market will have 186 cameras.
On the bells-and-whistles side, there’s plenty of wow factor in the new store. Elevators and a cart-friendly escalator will move customers between the parking lot and grocery floor. Vast sections for in-store prepared meals, flowers, sushi, baked good, microbrews and a wine steward to advise, seafood, and meat selections that include Kobe, prime and dry-aged beef. As a nod to the demographics, there will be sizeable Kosher and international food offerings, Sintic said. Negotiations have been underway to secure a café operator to provide dine-in service.
Another nod to demographics: His second-in-command, Allison Junco, is a Bellaire resident who “knows the tastes” of the community.
What didn’t happen in Bellaire was H-E-B’s widely acclaimed interaction with the community in preparing the store — other than trips to Bellaire City Hall to deal with zoning and regulations. Focus groups helped determine everything from design to store contents in the West U, Montrose and Tanglewood markets, but not in Bellaire. “We already had experience in the area with these demographics, and we felt we knew our customers,” Sintic said.
Those customers will have a drive-thru pharmacy, curbside pickup service of groceries, online deliveries, and use of a smartphone app that will direct them to products as they shop. With H-E-B acquiring the Favor delivery service, Sintic pointed out the chain’s commitment to that new way of shopping. “H-E-B will own the E-commerce business in a few years,” he boasted.
The managers’ talk was peppered with comments about the H-E-B “culture,” and Sintic introduced Megan Galbraith, the community coordinator, who’s already set up events and donations to support Bellaire schools and nonprofits.
With another mega-store announced to open in Meyerland Plaza in late 2019, one questioner asked whether that would impact business at the Bellaire store. Sintic said yes — “we cannibalize ourselves a little bit.” But with the Buffalo and Montrose markets “oversaturated,” it’s not a serious consideration, he said.
For now, the team is finishing hiring and getting ready for practical and “Spirit of H-E-B” training sessions for the complex Bellaire store, which will be open 6 a.m.-11 p.m. seven days a week in time for the July 4 holiday business.
Ready or not, Bellaire, here it comes.