H-E-B Supermarket More Prepared For COVID-19 Than Trump, Which Isn’t Saying Much

H-E-B Supermarket More Prepared For COVID-19 Than Trump, Which Isn’t Saying Much

The Texas grocery chain H-E-B is named after its founder Howard E. Butts, but for many logically apparent reasons, the initials have instead come to represent the grocer's slogan: “Here Everything's Better." Epicurious raved about HEB back in 2016. It's like Trader Joe's crossed with Whole Foods but you won't need a second mortgage to shop there. It's now currently a model of running a modern supermarket during the coronavirus crisis.

While other supermarkets are struggling to keep their supply chains intact and inventing policies on the fly for socially distant shopping, H-E-B has been ahead of the curve. In early March, it started limiting the amount of certain products (e.g. toilet paper and hand sanitizer) customers could purchase. It quickly rolled out social distancing protocols and expanded its sick leave policy. It proactively gave a $2 raise to a staff that would soon be on the front lines providing essential services during the pandemic. H-E-B even has a coronavirus hotline designed to guide employees through this unprecedented period. But even more? Texas Monthly reports they literally did the due diligence on coronavirus, back in January, that the Trump administration didn't.

How did H-E-B manage to have so much foresight for a crisis that caught the entire federal government flat-footed? It turns out the company actually listened to experts and didn't take a “kill the messenger" attitude to anyone who dared deliver unpleasant information. H-E-B even has its own director of emergency preparedness, Justen Noakes. The White House just had a common Jared Kushner. Noakes and his team are in a year-round state of preparedness for whatever shit might go down. No geniuses at H-E-B thought that dismantling his division to save a few dollars was a good idea because how often does the world end, really?

NOAKES: [W]e have been working on our pandemic and influenza plan for quite a while now, since 2005, when we had the threat of H5N1 overseas in China. That's when we first developed what our plan looked like, [as well as] some of our requirements and business implications. In 2009, we actually used that plan in response to H1N1, when the swine flu came to fruition in Cibolo, and refined it, made it more of an influenza plan. We've continued to revise it, and it's been a part of our preparedness plan at H-E-B ever since.

Noakes said that H-E-B started looking at the coronavirus in January. H-E-B president Craig Boyan was in contact with retailers and suppliers in China, Italy, and Spain. Boylan didn't need a crystal ball to see what was coming. He just listened to people who were already where we are now.

BOYAN: Chinese retailers have sent some pretty thorough information about what happened in the early days of the outbreak: how did that affect grocery and retail, how did that affect employees and how people were addressing sanitization and social distancing, how quarantine has affected the supply chain, how shopping behavior changed as the virus progressed, how did companies work to serve communities with total lockdowns, and what action steps those businesses wish they had done early in the cycle to get ahead of it.

The first reported coronavirus case in Texas was February 12. Over the next month, products started to become scarce, so H-E-B reduced its store hours to an 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. model, which Noakes said had been part of their "playbook all along." They took the time to prepare their staff for what was coming, so morale is high. They opened an Emergency Operations Center in San Antonio on March 4, when the president was still minimizing the impact of the virus. The folks who work at the EOC receive two hot meals a day and even have their own essential store in the warehouse so they don't have to wipe their asses with corn cobs.

H-E-B had expertly managed the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in 2017, but Boyan understood that unlike a hurricane, the coronavirus would potentially impact the entire country. His team made sure that their own supply chains would endure.

A common conservative argument is that the private sector handles everything better than the government. This might bolster that claim, but it's important to note that Donald Trump was supposed to bring his much-vaunted private sector experience to government. All he did was slash and burn with all the foresight of a small child with retrograde amnesia. The Trump administration was reactive instead of proactive, more interested in affixing blame than solving problems. Republicans claim they want to run the country “like a business," but I don't think they are up to H-E-B's standards.

[Texas Monthly]

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Stephen Robinson

Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. Once, he wrote a novel called “Mahogany Slade,” which you should read or at least buy. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."


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