Thousands of customers poured into the new H-E-B Plus! store in South Waco on Friday, creating a few traffic snarls but generally contributing to a festive atmosphere as they snapped photographs of a Texas-size, motorized shopping cart, sampled free food and marveled at the size of the $20 million regional store that sells everything from sushi platters and freshly grilled chicken breasts to Baylor Bear gear and big-screen TV sets.
H-E-B officials planned for such a sizable crowd that they instructed employees to park at a now-closed store at Dutton Avenue and Valley Mills Drive and provided rides to the Plus! location, where police officers helped direct traffic and H-E-B staffers patrolled the brimming parking lot.
“There were at least 100 folks waiting at the door when we opened at 6 a.m.,” H-E-B spokeswoman Tamra Jones said.
By 9 a.m., the 121,000-square-foot store was a beehive of activity. Lines of vehicles pulled onto the site from entrances on South Valley Mills Drive, Bagby Avenue and the Interstate 35 frontage road — some drawn to gasoline priced at $3.14 a gallon for regular unleaded at the H-E-B fuel island.
“It’s big — that’s the first thing that comes to mind,” said Delia Felan, of Meridian, who maneuvered a shopping basket with friends Marylynda Burke, of Clifton, and Myrna Rodell, also of Meridian. They said they usually shop at the H-E-B on Hewitt Drive, but couldn’t resist opening day at Waco’s new Plus! store.
The women agreed they liked the garden offerings near the entrance, the layout of the store and its wide aisles.
“I love it. It reminds me of Whole Foods in a way,” said Baylor student Haylee Loudenslager, 20, of Dallas, who was stocking up on walnut halves and comparing H-E-B’s selection of organic and health foods to those of Austin-based Whole Foods Market.
Loudenslager said she regrets the closing of the 42-year-old H-E-B near Baylor’s campus in conjunction with Friday’s unveiling.
“That will make things a little inconvenient,” she said. “But this store is bringing a lot of jobs to Waco, which is cool, and I think it’s good for the community.”
Employees of the Baylor-area and Dutton Avenue stores have relocated to the Plus! location, for which H-E-B hired an additional 115 people.
H-E-B officials said Friday that selected staffers and managers from stores around Central Texas were assigned to assist with Friday’s grand opening.
Bill Davenport, who for 12 years has managed the H-E-B at Wooded Acres Drive and Bosque Boulevard, will oversee the chain’s newest product locally.
“It was bittersweet leaving the partners and customers over there, but I was very thankful for being offered the opportunity to manage the biggest Plus! store in this part of the state,” Davenport said during a brief interview as he moved quickly between departments.
Davenport said the array of merchandise in the store impresses him, mentioning the cheese shop with its 500 varieties of specialty and imported products.
“With this product offering, I think the store is a regional draw that very easily will pull shoppers from Lake Whitney and Hillsboro down to nearly Temple,” he said.
$19.4 billion in sales
San Antonio-based H-E-B operates 350 stores in Texas and Mexico, enjoys $19.4 billion in annual sales and has had a presence in Waco for 65 years.
“We’re often asked, ‘Why don’t you go into Oklahoma or other states?’ But it is our philosophy to invest in the markets we have. We think that’s the best way to take care of our customers,” said Jeff Thomas, senior vice president and general manager of the chain.
Thomas said H-E-B met with members of the community to get ideas about what they wanted in a new store in South Waco.
“We now have a gift shop that is supportive of Baylor University, and there is not another one of its caliber in our system,” Thomas said.
The store also offers a beer and specialty wine department providing more than 1,400 varieties; a bakery complete with an in-store tortilleria; the Flaming Bird Grill, which will serve a variety of fresh whole chicken grilled over a flame; and the Cooking Connection, where customers can watch cooking demonstrations.
Thomas estimated that nearly 8,000 people would visit the store Friday, judging by the turnout at a recent store opening in Austin.
On her visit, Sandy McMillan, 36, said the new store “is almost a little too big,” as she filled her shopping cart.
“I’m a little worried about the traffic,” said McMillan, a McGregor resident who took U.S. Highway 84 to Valley Mills Drive and hit congestion near the store entrance. “I usually shop at the Hewitt Drive location on Tuesday or Wednesday, but I wanted to see what this store was like.”
Though the experience proved hectic, “I definitely think the place is worth an occasional trip. The cheese bar is great, and I’m making fondue for friends next week.”
The new store will open at 6 a.m. daily and close at 1 a.m. It will take part in the Points Club Rewards program that H-E-B launched in 2004 as a test program in Waco.