I stood inside the vestibule to the new H-E-B Montrose Market (1701 W. Alabama) yesterday afternoon, awaiting the beginning of a media tour through the San Antonio grocer's latest Houston store -- all 78,000 square feet of it -- and watched as one potential customer after another had to be turned away.
"We'll be open tomorrow," the tired-looking H-E-B rep guarding the entrance told eager visitors. One man with an armful of folders asked, "I just need to fax this stuff. Where's the next closest H-E-B?"
The H-E-B rep just stared at him, her eyes glazed with exhaustion. "I don't know," she said. "There's a Fiesta across the street..."
It's not like H-E-B to open a grocery store a week before Thanksgiving. But this isn't your average grocery store.
Montrose Market was built on a hotly debated site that drew complaints from the very beginning: The land, which once housed the Wilshire Village apartments, was cleared of many of its old oak trees -- although a few examples happily remain, incorporated into the design of the store -- and the streets leading to the store itself were never equipped to handle the type of traffic that this enormous new store will draw.
That traffic was evident yesterday as customers attempted to stream into the store, one after another. I'm eager to see how West Alabama and Dunlavy will handle the extra load of vehicles over the coming months.
H-E-B worked with area residents throughout the construction process, holding unprecedented community meetings and even allowing the public to vote on the final store design, in hopes that it would assuage concerns about the store's impact on the immediate neighborhood.
Like the recently built H-E-B Buffalo Market in West University, this new store also incorporated natural light and sustainable building supplies and practices into its new facility. H-E-B team leader Shannon Simpson said that they also learned from Buffalo Market's mistakes, however: The aisles here have been greatly widened and shelves are built on risers, enabling them to be restocked more efficiently.
Despite its truly gorgeous exterior -- it's honestly the prettiest grocery store I've ever seen in Houston -- the enormous store and its wide aisles still feels a little out of sorts with the surrounding neighborhood.
"It's like a suburban store in the Loop," CultureMap's Joel Luks said of the massive space. The feel is somewhat mitigated by more personalized touches, like the store's decision to stock items from My Fit Foods and create an inviting cafe space overlooking one of the site's most glorious old oak trees.
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The store is also attempting to ease its entry into the neighborhood with a voting campaign, in which shoppers are asked to cast their votes for one of four local charities at checkout: Houston Achievement Place, Kids Meals Inc., Wilson Wonderground Spark Park or the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. Each vote provides $5 to the chosen charity, with the winning charity receiving a donation matching the total number of votes, up to $10,000.
Votes can be cast through Sunday, November 20. That might be reason enough to brave the crowds (and the inevitable traffic) this weekend.