Since early March, grocery shoppers across the country have faced empty shelves, long lines, and watchful guards enforcing government rules. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans are dealing with shortages of staples like flour, yeast, and (inexplicably) toilet paper in our once-well-stocked stores. The government response to the pandemic has been sluggish, with piecemeal shelter in place orders, abysmal testing capabilities, and disrupted supply chains. It seems like no one, from grocery stores to the federal government, was prepared for this crisis.
Except in Texas.
While government is way behind the curve, the San Antonio-based grocery chain HEB is leading the way in keeping Texans supplied with the items they need.
For those unfamiliar with this beloved Texas grocery chain, some background: Founded in the small town of Kerrville in 1905, today H-E-B employs over 116,000 employees and operates more than 400 stores across Texas and Mexico, making it the largest private employer in Texas. It is the dominant grocery store chain in south and central Texas, and in some smaller towns, the only grocery store for miles.
But in a state with its share of natural disasters, H-E-B is also a key player in disaster response. From hurricanes to wildfires, H-E-B’s emergency response teams show up with mobile kitchens, pharmacies, water tankers, and other vital services to help hard-hit communities. For example, when Hurricane Harvey left the city of Beaumont without drinking water and FEMA said it couldn’t get through, the city’s leaders called H-E-B. Within a few hours, a fleet of H-E-B trucks was plowing through two feet of flood waters, with the senior vice president of supply chain in the lead truck, to deliver trailer-loads of water to the stricken city.
But H-E-B is ready for much more than hurricanes. A recent Texas Monthly article highlights just how prepared H-E-B was to confront the current COVID-19 crisis. The company, which employs a full-time director of Emergency Preparedness and has an emergency operations center standing ready, has had a pandemic and influenza plan in place since 2005. H-E-B keeps emergency supplies staged at every warehouse, ready to go when needed. While the federal government did not declare COVID-19 a national emergency until March 13, H-E-B’s team had been watching the virus’ progression since early January as it began to impact Chinese suppliers, and implemented its pandemic emergency plan on February 2. H-E-B kept in close contact with retailers and suppliers in China, and later Italy and Spain, to learn from their experiences as the virus and subsequent lockdowns overtook their countries.
Thanks to its advance preparation, H-E-B has been able to shift production, get creative with suppliers, and help ensure that the most-needed products are making it to the shelves (although they’re just as perplexed as the rest of us about the run on toilet paper). It hasn’t been perfect—some products are still hard to find, and social distancing requirements can mean lines out the door—but overall, most shoppers are getting what they need. H-E-B’s initiative and foresight should be celebrated, and businesses across the country should be empowered to emulate H-E-B’s example.
H-E-B’s COVID-19 response shows how nimble private companies perform better than the government behemoth, especially during crisis. H-E-B is above all a business, and businesses make money by offering things people want to buy. If H-E-B can’t supply the products its customers want, like eggs, milk, and paper towels, then it won’t survive.
In a pandemic, this is more important than ever. Companies have an economic incentive to plan for emergencies, and entrepreneurs will step in to meet gaps. Distilleries will produce hand sanitizer, auto manufacturers will retool to build ventilators, and a Texas grocery store chain will utilize years of disaster planning to ensure it can still serve its customers.