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"Hindsights" by Michael Barr

Looking back at
HEB - A Lesson
in the Grocery Business

Michael Barr

Florence Thornton Butt moved to Kerrville from Memphis in 1904 with a sick husband and 3 small sons. On November 26, 1905 she opened a small grocery store below her family's modest apartment at 812 Main Street in Kerrville.

 Kerrville TX - Original HEB Building
Original HEB Building
812 Main Street in Kerrville
Photo courtesy of the Kerr County Historical Commission

Florence spent $60 on inventory - money she borrowed from relatives in Tennessee. The business grossed $50.60 in its first month.

Originally advertised as Mrs. F. T. Butt Grocery, Florence changed the name to C. C. Butt Grocery after her husband Charles. In early 20th Century America, a business named for a man was more socially acceptable.

The business grew, slow and steady, especially after Florence began offering free delivery. The delivery vehicle was 10 year old son Howard's wagon. Courtesy and fair dealing were the cornerstones of the business.

On December 26, 1911 Florence moved her store from its Main Street location to the ground floor of the Masonic building on Earl Garrett Street in Kerrville.

Kerrville TX - Masonic Building
Masonic Building in Kerrville
Earl Garrett Street
2nd Home of C. C. Butt Grocery
Photo courtesy Michael Barr, June 2016

Youngest son Howard clerked at the store until he graduated from Tivy High School in 1914. After serving in the Navy in World War I, Howard returned to Kerrville and assumed active management of the family business.

The C. C. Butt Grocery Company didn't succeed by standing still or playing it safe. Howard tried new things. Some worked, some didn't.

In 1920 the company opened its first branch store in Center Point and a feed and seed store in Kerrville. Both failed.

In 1922 Howard changed the business model from a credit based system to a cash and carry system. Instead of charging, customers settled the invoice in cash at the time of purchase.

In 1925 the Butt family bought the Kerrville Piggly Wiggly grocery store at 233 Earl Garrett Street, combined the businesses and began operating as C. C. Butt Piggly Wiggly. The world was about to get a lesson in the grocery business.

In the old days of grocery shopping, a shopper handed her grocery list to the store clerk who gathered the items for her.

Then in the early 20th Century, Clarence Saunders of Memphis, Tennessee had a crazy new idea - a self-service grocery store. Each item was marked with a price. Shoppers did their own shopping from open shelves using a new contraption - a shopping cart.

In 1916 Saunders founded a chain of Piggly Wiggly grocery stores using the modern self-service business model. The Piggly Wiggly system revolutionized the grocery business.

Howard Butt saw the future of grocery shopping at Piggly Wiggly. He wanted to build a chain of grocery stores using the open shelf, self-service concept.

The new business model propelled the Kerrville store to record profits. Howard plowed the profits back into the business.

The company grew rapidly. In four years the C. C. Butt Piggly Wiggly Company opened branches in Junction, Brady, Brownwood, Gonzales and Del Rio.

Responding to demand in an area of Texas long neglected, the company moved heavily into the lower Rio Grande Valley. In 1929 Howard moved the company headquarters from Kerrville to Harlingen.

In 1935 Howard changed the name of the parent organization from the C. C. Butt Grocery Company to the Howard E. Butt Company. In 1946 he shortened the name to HEB.

In 1930 the company operated 17 stores with 2 million in annual sales. By 1936 the company had 31 stores and by 1940, 38 stores. The newest stores had air-conditioning.

The relationship between the Butt family and Piggly Wiggly was only a franchise arrangement. The Butt family owned and operated the stores. In 1944 the company dropped the Piggly Wiggly name and began operating as HEB Food Stores.

The company moved its headquarters from Harlingen to Corpus Christi in 1940. In 1985 headquarters moved again into the historic San Antonio Arsenal that once furnished arms and munitions to frontier Texas forts.

Today Charles E. Butt, son of Howard Butt and grandson of Florence Butt, runs the company. HEB operates over 300 stores in Texas and 52 stores in Mexico. It is one of the largest family-owned retail food chains in the world.

HEB Founder Florence Thornton Butt
HEB Founder Mrs. F. T. Butt
Photo courtesy of the Kerr County Historical Commission KCHC

Michael Barr
January 15, 2018 Column

"Parent Store of C. C. Butt Piggly Wiggly Chain Had Meager Start 25 Years Ago," Kerrville Mountain Sun, November 20, 1930.
"Building's History a Part of Kerrville's Growth," Kerrville Daily Times, September 22, 1985.
"Kerrville Company to Operate Grocery Store at Del Rio," Kerrville Sun Times, August 19, 1926.
"HEB Stores Started in Old Frame Building in Kerrville," Kerrville Mountain Sun, January 14, 1960.
"Company Started as a Small Store 110 Years Ago," San Antonio Express-News, March 11, 2015.
The Handbook of Texas.

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