By Miles Bednorz
Begun as a small grocery, staffed by family members in Kerrville, Texas, H-E-B has grown into a massive company, operating more than four hundred stores throughout Texas and northern Mexico with more than 120,000 employees. H-E-B has adopted the slogan that “no store does more,” and it holds true. The store is a staple in Texas and has received national recognition for its disaster preparedness, community involvement, and outstanding products. For over 115 years, H-E-B has served communities in Texas and Houston in a way only it can: by doing more.
Founder of what would become H-E-B, Florence Thornton was born on September 9, 1864, in Buena Vista, Mississippi. In 1889 she married Clarence C. Butt and later moved to San Antonio, which had a better climate for her husband who suffered from tuberculosis. Florence and her family lived in San Antonio for about a year before moving to Kerrville, where she worked for A&P Tea Company ordering and delivering groceries to customers. She soon built up a supply of groceries and saved enough capital to rent a building and invest in starting her own store. The C.C. Butt Grocery Company opened on November 26, 1905, in a two-story building on Main Street. Florence wrote of those days, recalling that the building had “rooms to live in” and that rent was nine dollars a month. The initial investment in the store was $60, and in it sold about $56 in goods in the first month. She added, “every month was growth, but hard work.”
The store operated under the charge and delivery method that was popular among grocery stores at the time. Customers came into the store, placed an order on credit, and someone – frequently one of Florence’s children – delivered the goods to their home. Howard, the youngest of Florence’s three boys, delivered the groceries, first in a baby buggy, and, later in a children’s wagon. Upgrading from the baby buggy to a wagon was significant for the small store, as it cost three dollars and represented a large part of their capital. Later, when winter came and brought rain with it, the wagon proved useless in Kerrville’s muddy streets. The family soon purchased a horse and wagon so their customers’ orders could be delivered in all types of weather.
Howard remained interested in the grocery business and helped his mother run the store during his teenage years. Florence allowed him to take over the store’s operation in 1919 when he returned from the U.S. Navy, but she stayed active in the community and her church, starting a trend of philanthropy that has persisted in the company to this day. Florence Butt died on March 4, 1954, at age eighty-nine.
After taking over as manager of the small Kerrville store, Howard made a gamble in 1921 and changed the store’s service model – from charge and deliver to cash-and-carry – ending the wagon deliveries he had known as a child. He sought to expand the family’s company and tried several times to open new stores in new towns in South Texas, including Center Point, Junction, and Brownwood, but all failed. Finally, he opened a successful store in Del Rio in 1926 that was quickly followed by another successful expansion in Laredo. Howard continued to expand the company and increase the number of stores throughout South and Central Texas. The C.C. Butt Grocery Company became the H. E. Butt Grocery Company in 1935 and H-E-B in 1946. Under Howard’s leadership, H-E-B stores opened in Corpus Christi in 1931, Austin in 1938, and San Antonio in 1942. The first full-service H-E-B store in Houston opened in 2001.