Yesterday, we recounted the top five grocery store closings that had a significant impact on the Houston supermarket scene during the past 10 years. But for as much as we may (or may not) miss AppleTree or Albertson's, we've had some much better grocery stores head our way since then.
In the April-May 2009 edition of My Table magazine, our friend Matthew Dresden spoke to the dramatic changes that Houston has seen since the opening of the very first Kroger in 1955: Fiesta Mart to Super H Mart, Mi Tienda to 99 Ranch -- Houston is now not only a multi-cultural city in terms of population, but in terms of supermarkets to serve that population. More than that, we've also seen the market share shift forcefully from the domination of Kroger and Randall's to the omnipresent H-E-B, which didn't exist in Houston until the early '90s. It's a testament, in fact, to the Texas-based chain's strong presence that three of the five spots on this list are devoted to various H-E-B ventures. With that in mind, here are the five biggest grocery store openings of the last ten years.
H-E-B: Yes, the San Antonio stores first opened locations in Houston in 1992. However, those locations were H-E-B Pantry stores, few of which are still left in the city. The move into the Houston market was considered a difficult one, and investors felt that the company was taking a huge risk. However, opening smaller stores at first -- the Pantry stores are so named for their compact design and basic offerings -- allowed the Houston community to familiarize themselves with the new grocery stores. By the time the first real, full-sized H-E-Bs opened in Houston in 2001, the chain had become a huge hit. With the opening of the vast 125,000-square-foot store on Bunker Hill in 2008 and the Buffalo Market this year, H-E-B cemented its market presence even further. The chain still has a long way to go, however -- Wal-Mart continues to dominate the Houston market with a 29 percent market share, with Kroger a close second at 25 percent.
Central Market: The same year that H-E-B shed its pantries, it opened the first Central Market in Houston to great fanfare. The high-end epicurean concept was so popular in Austin -- where the first Central Market opened in order to compete directly with Whole Foods -- that it became a veritable tourist attraction, second only in popularity to the Capitol. This popularity carried over to Houston and to this day, nearly eight years later, there is never a time when the busy grocery store isn't filled with people and its parking lot filled with traffic. The store offers more than just food -- gourmet cooking classes, the Cafe On The Run dining area where people can buy ready-made food to take home or simply eat at the store, and a huge organic goods section are some of the biggest attractions at Central Market.
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Mi Tienda: Another H-E-B concept store, this time with its first venture in Houston. In 2006, the largest Hispanic-targeted store (and the first in the H-E-B chain), called Mi Tienda -- Spanish for "my store" -- opened in Pasadena, with a mindset of competing directly with the local Fiesta Mart chain and its 30 stores in Houston. The 63,000-square-foot store was immense and featured a tortilleria (something which has now been incorporated into many other H-E-Bs), strolling mariachis, restaurants featuring Mexican and Cuban cuisine, and bi-lingual employees wearing guayaberas and nametags with the location of their birth (usually in Mexico or Central America).
Super H Mart: Sure, other Asian-focused grocery stores existed before Korea-based chain Super H Mart opened in an old Kroger store on Blalock. Ko-Mart, just down the road, had filled the Korean grocery store niche for years, and countless grocery stores in Chinatown -- both old and new -- have offered Asian foods, ingredients and spices for decades. But when Super H Mart opened in 2008, it turned the Asian grocery store paradigm on its head. This wasn't a baffling, oddly scented, dimly lit store like our beloved Hong Kong Market. With a food court, a bakery, a phenomenal fish department, a wall of kimchi, a jewelry store, wide aisles, bright lighting and cheerful signage, it was a fascinating hybrid of American and Asian grocery stores. 99 Ranch Market, which opened this year in the old Fiesta Mart location also on Blalock, is another chain that's trying to emulate the Super H Mart model -- and by all accounts, it's succeeding so far.
Wal-Mart: ...or is it just Walmart now? Either way, the Arkansas-based chain that embodies everything that most people hate about big-box retailers is unstoppable in Houston, whether we like it or not. As previously mentioned, Walmart has a 29 percent market share here, due in large part to the opening of the Walmart Neighborhood Markets throughout the 2000s. Designed as smaller versions of the package stores (industry lingo for regular big-box stores plus supermarkets, a.k.a. Walmart Supercenters), the first Neighborhood Market opened in 2003. While we may not care for the Walmart spirit and choose to do our shopping elsewhere, the undeniable fact is that most Houstonians prefer the extra-low prices at the regular Walmart Supercenters and the Neighborhood Markets -- making Walmart the most popular grocery chain in town.
Honorable Mention -- Costco: Before 2001, no one believed that any company could make a dent in the stronghold that Sam's Club had on the warehouse market here in Houston. Companies had tried and failed in the past, but that was before Costco came along. A higher-end version of the Sam's warehouse model (owned, of course, by Walmart), Costco was immediately popular with people who didn't want to sacrifice quality just to get lower prices. A tribute to its success here in Houston, a Costco finally opened inside the Loop last year on Richmond (on the former site of the HISD Central Services building) and the company is as busy as ever -- in fact, it's now is the largest membership warehouse chain in the nation.