Heights Walmart Opened Over the Weekend; Redefines "Local"

Jeff Randall, the store manager for the new Walmart that just opened on Yale Street over the weekend, is incredibly eager and affable as he leads me around the giant Supercenter that covers 150,000 square feet of retail space -- and roughly triple that in a parking lot outside that the Walmart shares with pad site tenants like Taco Cabana.

Randall is a native Houstonian, he's eager to stress, and a third-generation one at that. Randall even has roots in the very neighborhood most incensed by his store's presence: the Heights, the majority of which lies directly north of the Katy Freeway that has a new feeder directing traffic onto this now-busy stretch of Yale.

The Homer Randall Learning Center at the Heights House is named after his grandfather, who lived in the Heights and was active in the neighborhood until his death. Randall the grandson seems confused as to why his store wasn't welcome in that same neighborhood; as far as he sees things, Walmart employs local residents and brings inexpensive food to an area of town that's saturated with expensive grocery stores.

Most importantly, Walmart is trying to become friendlier and more adaptive to current food trends, although its successes in those areas have been hit or miss.

"We talked to area suppliers about getting craft beer in the store," Randall says during our tour of the grocery side of the Supercenter. It's empty of guests at the moment, but Walmart employees are scurrying efficiently like armies of ants as they finish stocking fresh produce, gallons of milk, packages of ground meat and cups of yogurt. "We worked real hard to get that stuff."

The result is a somewhat limited selection of Saint Arnold and Karbach, both brewed in Houston, as well as some Ranger Creek and a few other craft brands -- but Randall is proud nevertheless. And getting these two Houston beers in this store means that other Walmart stores can now carry the product. The sky could be the limit for the two breweries, who may soon find out just how heady Walmart's purchasing power is. Recently, the beef industry was thrown entirely off-kilter by Walmart's decision to start stocking USDA Choice instead of USDA Select beef and the price of Choice rose 15 percent across the board as Walmart sought to plunder an already limited supply of Choice beef for its stores.

But Walmart's purchasing power can have positive affects too, something that communications director Daniel Morales -- another native Houstonian -- mentioned as we prowled past the dairy case. Morales was accompanying us throughout, jumping in for Randall on occasions when the questions began to lean less toward the store itself and more towards Walmart's national presence.

"We made a commitment to sell hormone-free milk," Morales says as he points to the fine print on the label of its own house Great Value-brand milk, which has been rBGH-free since 2008. He hopes it will lead other retailers and grocery stores to give up rBGH-treated dairy products -- and he'll probably get his wish.

For a chain as vast as Walmart to create an equally vast demand for something like rBGH-free milk means that the supply pool will have to become enormous. And the larger that supply pool gets, the more rBGH-free milk will be available on the market, and the less it will cost.

But while Walmart is making smart choices for some products, other areas remain murkier -- such as its commitment to begin stocking more "local" products as part of a larger sustainability program.

The chain went public with its local food effort in 2010. And by 2015, wrote Stephanie Clifford in the New York Times, "Wal-Mart plans to double the percentage of locally grown produce it sells to 9 percent."

In that same article, Clifford wrote that "Wal-Mart defines local produce as that grown and sold in the same state," although Morales indicated otherwise when I asked him and Randall to show me the local produce in the new Supercenter.

"Local doesn't necessarily mean from Texas," Morales is quick to correct. "But from the region." Watermelon could come from Oklahoma, for example, since it's faster to ship the fruit in from up north than from far West Texas.

"We're trying to reduce food miles," Randall says, by way of elucidation. He uses the word "local" once again, but it's losing its impact with every passing explanation and redefinition of an already over-used and over-exploited phrase. The only other local products in the store are the Texas Firecracker-brand crackers, which -- like the Saint Arnold and Karbach beer -- is made here in Houston.

"I met those guys after a neighborhood meeting," says Randall, pleased. To my jaded eyes, three local products in an entire Supercenter is like spitting into the ocean -- but Randall seems genuinely excited by the limited local offering. Morales, too, seems excited by the local beers in particular, and bemused as to why the Heights Walmart has been so roundly criticized.

"People say that we're chasing small businesses away," Morales says. "Look outside. You'll see small businesses right out there." There's a nail salon and a cell phone store -- not the traditional definition of small businesses, necessarily -- along with that Taco Cabana. And a McDonald's is coming soon. But perhaps all businesses are small businesses when you're Walmart.

Aside from the limited selection of local products, other areas of Walmart's sustainability program seem more successful: The LED lights in the cold cases that have replaced hot lighting ballast mean that cooling systems don't have to work as hard to keep the cold goods cold. And, as Morales points out toward the end of our tour, the lighting system in the store is set up to only come on when the skylights in the ceiling aren't letting in enough natural light.

A cloud has passed overhead, and a lamp 30 feet above us flickers quickly and quietly to life. Morales points, smiling. "See?" he says. "It works."

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