SCHERTZ, Texas -- H.E. Butt Grocery Co., San Antonio, has opened a meals store inside a new unit here that's specifically aimed at helping customers make meal decisions.
It may sound ironic, but the meals store, called Great's, is targeting the takeout, self-service crowd with a particularly high level of service. The service staff includes a crew of meal planners who are charged with helping customers actually make meal decisions.
If a customer is given help deciding what the kids will eat and what goes well with what, they're more apt to choose fare that makes everybody in the family happy and they'll be back, an H-E-B source explained.
"We're hoping to give people a chance to once again gather around the dinner table and share a real meal together. Our goal is to provide the ultimate in freshness and the ease in preparation necessary to make that possible,' said Ron Denny group vice president of Great's, in a statement the day the meals store opened. Great's made its debut Sept. 11. It occupies approximately 2,200 square feet at the front of an 85,000-square-foot unit H-E-B opened here in May. To offer meals customers optimum convenience, it has its own front entrance as well as two back entrances from within the main store.
The Great's name gives the meals store its own identity and also sets it apart from the rest of the unit. Asked about the origin of the name, an H-E-B source said, "The name comes from great food, great store, great company."
What's particularly notable is that this Great's is just the first of several. Four more are already on the drawing board to go into either new stores or remodels in Austin, Texas; Waco, Texas; and Round Rock, an Austin suburb, according to H-E-B.
The next store to get a Great's will be the Round Rock unit, a new H-E-B store, which opened earlier this summer with a new format and philosophy spotlighting its fresh foods -- as reported in SN.
The location of Great's here is perfect to catch the commuter crowds, Tess Coody, a spokeswoman for Great's, told SN. The town, with a population of approximately 20,000 is a bedroom community tied to San Antonio. "My guess is that just about everybody who lives here works in San Antonio," Coody said. And what's more, there's no meals competition nearby, not even another supermarket in close proximity, she added.
"This store serves other small communities here, too, and it's a rapidly growing area right off Interstate 35. The whole corridor along I-35 from San Antonio to Austin is booming. There's a lot of building going on," she said.
H-E-B -- a chain with more than 240 supermarkets in Texas, Louisiana and Mexico -- has recognized that the hurried, stressed consumer needs help deciding what to buy at the end of the workday, Coody said.
So one of the major features of Great's is a crew of "meal planners cum waiters." Six of the meal planners will be on the sales floor at all times at Great's, she said. And they'll be doing everything from pointing out where the balsamic vinegar is to answering true meal planning questions just as a caterer would, she explained.
But mostly, they'll just be lightening the burden of everyday decision-making for the harried consumer. "For instance, they helped me decide what my little girl might like for dinner tonight," Coody said. And they're apt to say something like this to a customer: "The spinach mashed potatoes go very well with that fire-roasted chicken breast."
They work on the sales floor exclusively, just as a salesperson in a clothing store does, and they interact with customers in much the same way, Coody said. She noted, too, Great's has a floor manager, as well as a unit manager.
A hickory-smoked hearth oven is the focal point of Great's. It's against the back wall and can be seen upon entering. A group of shop-around, self-service cases are directly ahead of customers as they enter, but the cases' profiles are low enough to allow a straight-ahead view of the oven.
Chefs roast a variety of meats there all day long, but the star is brisket as it is just about everywhere in Texas, Coody said.
"We're very particular about our brisket in this part of the country. And H-E-B is doing it right. The meat is rubbed with a season rub and then smoked in the oven," she said. The oven also produces a variety of meats from ribs to roast pork to chicken.
The high temperature sears the meats and seals in juices and flavor, Coody explained. The hot meats are sold by the pound as well as carved for meal entrees and sandwiches. A barbecued brisket sandwich on Great's-baked cheddar bread for $1.99 is expected to be a customer favorite. Once customers are hooked by the aromas of hickory-roasted meats and visual excitement at Great's, they can choose from a tremendous number of options.
The menu is quite diverse, and the food is offered in a variety of forms. Options include hot, chilled, self-service and service. And it can be purchased as a meal with two sides, as an individual serving or by the pound.
The idea is to provide good-tasting, restaurant-quality food in whatever form the customer wants to buy it, Coody said. And she emphasized the words, "restaurant quality," as she pointed out that H-E-B has drawn its Great's chefs from the restaurant industry. One, she said, has come to Great's from Hyatt Hill Country Resorts, a five-star hotel and restaurant outside of San Antonio.
Although the hot roasted meats provide appealing theater and chef-garbed associates behind a service counter dish up chilled entrees such as meat loaf and chicken piccata, the emphasis at Great's is clearly on self-service, takeout.
There are only four small tables inside and 10 outside. Smack in the middle of the store are tiered, shop-around cases featuring packaged entrees, sides and desserts. The items are divided into five different menus: American Heartland, Asian Pacific, South of the Border, Lone Star (Texas favorites such as barbecued brisket and ribs) and Mediterranean.
Each category is designated with a colorful banner above its side of the case and the packaged products are color-coded according to category. The chilled items can be heated up to be eaten on site. Customers can use two large microwaves available for that purpose. Aggressive sampling and demos top the priority list at Great's, Coody said. On opening day, two of the items being demoed were sirloin steak with Sonoma garlic mashed potatoes and sugar-cinnamon roasted pecans, a local favorite.
Some upscale packaged goods such as olive oils, gourmet spreads and vinegars are sold at Great's. So are bottled wine and beer, including imported beers and a regional mainstay, Shine Bock. The restaurant-quality atmosphere is enhanced by upbeat music and soft, attractive lighting, a local source said. "There's a little bit of Eatzi's there."