The Kingwood H-E-B store was a bustle of activity on Thursday, Jan. 18 as they prepared for the public reopening at 6 a.m. the next day. H-E-B business department employees Amy and Sharon greeted visitors at the door, happy to be giving previews after the store had been closed for five months. Both ladies have been working at the Spring store on Riley Fuzzel Road, since H-E-B gave employees the choice to work anywhere in Texas they could be accommodated.
Excitement was in the air – it was palpable as everyone prepared for the big day. As The Tribune spoke with the store manager, Unit Director Tony Klaus, he was pelted with questions. “The electrical guy is here for the parking lot lights, Tony! Who does he need to see?” or “They’re here to install the cart returns, Tony! Just wanted to let you know!”
As a result of the flooding during Hurricane Harvey, everything in the store was a total loss. No product was salvageable, and all equipment had to be replaced. “Nothing stayed. We had the floors, the walls, and maybe a few signs that were way up high. The store was an empty shell,” Klaus said.
The concrete floor was so damaged that several layers had to be removed for complete resurfacing. “We’re at right over $30 million in damage, and that number keeps climbing,” Klaus said.
Even though store managers say there is more work to be done, the progress is incredible and the store is beautiful. Approximately 100 contractors per day have worked for months to return the store to its original state. It had been open less than a year when Harvey hit.
H-E-B did make a few changes. First, there are flood line markers throughout the store to mark the 6 feet and 7 inches of water that careened into the store courtesy of Hurricane Harvey. Klaus said the memorabilia adds a bit of history and novelty to the store. Other changes were made to meet customer needs – an expanded pet section, a greatly expanded Meal Simple area for ready-to-heat or ready-to-cook meals, and even more spaces for curbside grocery pickup, the popularity of which far exceeded the store’s expectations. Four of those pickup spaces are reserved for what Klaus said may be the most exciting addition of all – a full service, True Texas BBQ restaurant, complete with a huge wood rotisserie smoker and dedicated pitmaster, that by summertime will offer sit down and curbside pickup “by the plate or by the pound.”
Klaus said it had been all hands on deck in the last week’s push to get the doors open, with all 400 employees working in the final days to get things done. “Then our ice storm hit, and I wasn’t sure if we were going to get all the trucks in here on time for the opening, but everyone has worked round the clock, and we have gotten it done,” Klaus said.
Amazingly, employees completely restocked the empty 105,000-square-foot store in a record nine days – it normally takes two full weeks. Thirteen truckloads alone were required just to restock the dry goods, and the Kingwood team as well as the corporate H-E-B store setup resource team accomplished that in 48 hours. It’s amazing to think about everything that had to occur in the last two days leading up to the opening – frozen items restocked, nearly 350 organics products readied, and fresh meats cut and prepared.
The store also made the reopening event even more fun, giving employees in each department creative license for decorating and displaying their own department to awe customers on opening day.
Krause had experienced a flooded store before in a much smaller store in Liberty, so he thought he knew what to expect. Post-flood, he unlocked the front glass sliding doors, peeked in at the Kingwood H-E-B entrance and thought it didn’t look too bad. “When I turned the corner, I changed my mind. I couldn’t believe my eyes,” Krause said.
Klaus knows all too well the staffing difficulty that area small businesses are having post-Harvey. He is fortunate that most of his employees returned to work. H-E-B gave each employee two full weeks of pay after the storm. About 20 percent of their employees were impacted personally by the flood, and took leaves of absence to get their personal situations sorted out. The company secured four hotels to house employees who needed it, and nine area stores absorbed Kingwood employees. They only lost about 20 employees who decided to stay at the other H-E-B stores or moved elsewhere after the flood.
“The company really stepped up. I’ve been with the company a long time, and have seen over and over how they’ve stepped up, but this time they really surprised me at everything they did to help people,” Klaus said.
H-E-B focused their energy on just trying to get the doors open, so had no big opening event planned. Klaus said that will happen later. On Saturday, the day after opening, they had a band extravaganza that benefitted Kingwood High School’s rebuilding efforts.
By 8 a.m. on Friday, the store was packed with shoppers happy to be back. The floral department was buzzing, the produce department was popping, and the H-E-B chef was happy to once again be giving everyone cooking tips. A group of Kingwood moms was so happy, they brought an RV to tailgate in the parking lot, and made T-shirts donning H-E-B Houston President Scott McClelland’s famous glasses with the insignia “Kingwood Moms Love H-E-B.” If you were there bright and early Friday morning, you probably spotted these lovely ladies in the wine section.
The store looks much different now, almost as if a flood had never happened. But Kingwood knows it did, and thanks to the H-E-B corporation, the employees and community, it is back open. The store says that Kingwood has been through so much, and they couldn’t be happier to be reopen to help restore the community.
Klaus said that the H-E-B company has changed in many ways over the years, through technological changes and other business fluctuations: “One thing that hasn’t changed is that H-E-B started in the heart. It’s about people. The company always makes the right decision, even though that decision might cost a lot of money. When you work for a company like that, people want to be here.”