Heights Walmart Opened Over the Weekend; Redefines "Local"

Heights Walmart 029.jpg
Photos by Katharine Shilcutt
See more photos from inside the new Heights Walmart in our slideshow.
Jeff Randall, the store manager for the new Walmart that just opened on Yale Street over the weekend, is incredibly eager and affable as he leads me around the giant Supercenter that covers 150,000 square feet of retail space -- and roughly triple that in a parking lot outside that the Walmart shares with pad site tenants like Taco Cabana.

Randall is a native Houstonian, he's eager to stress, and a third-generation one at that. Randall even has roots in the very neighborhood most incensed by his store's presence: the Heights, the majority of which lies directly north of the Katy Freeway that has a new feeder directing traffic onto this now-busy stretch of Yale.

The Homer Randall Learning Center at the Heights House is named after his grandfather, who lived in the Heights and was active in the neighborhood until his death. Randall the grandson seems confused as to why his store wasn't welcome in that same neighborhood; as far as he sees things, Walmart employs local residents and brings inexpensive food to an area of town that's saturated with expensive grocery stores.

Most importantly, Walmart is trying to become friendlier and more adaptive to current food trends, although its successes in those areas have been hit or miss.

"We talked to area suppliers about getting craft beer in the store," Randall says during our tour of the grocery side of the Supercenter. It's empty of guests at the moment, but Walmart employees are scurrying efficiently like armies of ants as they finish stocking fresh produce, gallons of milk, packages of ground meat and cups of yogurt. "We worked real hard to get that stuff."

Heights Walmart 019.jpg
Similar to H-E-B, Walmart will allow customers to build their own six-pack of beer from a selection of loose bottles.
The result is a somewhat limited selection of Saint Arnold and Karbach, both brewed in Houston, as well as some Ranger Creek and a few other craft brands -- but Randall is proud nevertheless. And getting these two Houston beers in this store means that other Walmart stores can now carry the product. The sky could be the limit for the two breweries, who may soon find out just how heady Walmart's purchasing power is. Recently, the beef industry was thrown entirely off-kilter by Walmart's decision to start stocking USDA Choice instead of USDA Select beef and the price of Choice rose 15 percent across the board as Walmart sought to plunder an already limited supply of Choice beef for its stores.

But Walmart's purchasing power can have positive affects too, something that communications director Daniel Morales -- another native Houstonian -- mentioned as we prowled past the dairy case. Morales was accompanying us throughout, jumping in for Randall on occasions when the questions began to lean less toward the store itself and more towards Walmart's national presence.

"We made a commitment to sell hormone-free milk," Morales says as he points to the fine print on the label of its own house Great Value-brand milk, which has been rBGH-free since 2008. He hopes it will lead other retailers and grocery stores to give up rBGH-treated dairy products -- and he'll probably get his wish.

Heights Walmart 013.jpg
Walmart is stocking an increasingly larger selection of organic produce.
For a chain as vast as Walmart to create an equally vast demand for something like rBGH-free milk means that the supply pool will have to become enormous. And the larger that supply pool gets, the more rBGH-free milk will be available on the market, and the less it will cost.

But while Walmart is making smart choices for some products, other areas remain murkier -- such as its commitment to begin stocking more "local" products as part of a larger sustainability program.

The chain went public with its local food effort in 2010. And by 2015, wrote Stephanie Clifford in the New York Times, "Wal-Mart plans to double the percentage of locally grown produce it sells to 9 percent."

In that same article, Clifford wrote that "Wal-Mart defines local produce as that grown and sold in the same state," although Morales indicated otherwise when I asked him and Randall to show me the local produce in the new Supercenter.

Heights Walmart 008.jpg
There's an emphasis here on stocking plenty of Hispanic foods, with Fiesta mentioned as a major competitor in this area.
"Local doesn't necessarily mean from Texas," Morales is quick to correct. "But from the region." Watermelon could come from Oklahoma, for example, since it's faster to ship the fruit in from up north than from far West Texas.

"We're trying to reduce food miles," Randall says, by way of elucidation. He uses the word "local" once again, but it's losing its impact with every passing explanation and redefinition of an already over-used and over-exploited phrase. The only other local products in the store are the Texas Firecracker-brand crackers, which -- like the Saint Arnold and Karbach beer -- is made here in Houston.

"I met those guys after a neighborhood meeting," says Randall, pleased. To my jaded eyes, three local products in an entire Supercenter is like spitting into the ocean -- but Randall seems genuinely excited by the limited local offering. Morales, too, seems excited by the local beers in particular, and bemused as to why the Heights Walmart has been so roundly criticized.

Heights Walmart 007.jpg
Walmart's new "Great for You" tags are meant to indicate grocery items that are healthy options.
"People say that we're chasing small businesses away," Morales says. "Look outside. You'll see small businesses right out there." There's a nail salon and a cell phone store -- not the traditional definition of small businesses, necessarily -- along with that Taco Cabana. And a McDonald's is coming soon. But perhaps all businesses are small businesses when you're Walmart.

Aside from the limited selection of local products, other areas of Walmart's sustainability program seem more successful: The LED lights in the cold cases that have replaced hot lighting ballast mean that cooling systems don't have to work as hard to keep the cold goods cold. And, as Morales points out toward the end of our tour, the lighting system in the store is set up to only come on when the skylights in the ceiling aren't letting in enough natural light.

A cloud has passed overhead, and a lamp 30 feet above us flickers quickly and quietly to life. Morales points, smiling. "See?" he says. "It works."



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Saint Arnold Brewery

2522 Fairway Park Drive, Houston, TX

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42 comments
Maureen Demar Hall
Maureen Demar Hall

Actually Jay, they cut down 6 beautiful oaks on one side for this project!

Anse
Anse

I share the politically-correct disgust for all things Walmart that all of my fellow progressive urban dwellers have, but sometimes I wonder if our disgust is not selective. Really, isn't Target just a slightly cleaner version of the same? Is the rainwater cistern in front of the Whole Foods enough to convince a low-income working class family to shop there and spend three times as much on a bag of groceries? I struggle with the two sides of my liberal sensibility: concern for the environment and support of progressive business practices, and sympathy for folks who can't help but choose the lowest-cost deal they can find. Somehow we must strive to shape modern capitalism to meet progressive ends that are decidedly more than cosmetic and can meet the needs of the working poor.

HTownChowDown
HTownChowDown

Do people in Houston regularly go grocery shopping on their bikes?

Dolphina
Dolphina

Hell, it's gotta be than Trader Joe's

Roberto NoOnions
Roberto NoOnions

I don't trust their organic food. Organic, yes... sprinkled with evil, yes...dipped in the shattered hopes and dreams of the heights, yes...

gossamersixteen
gossamersixteen topcommenter

I went Saturday for one of the few american made items they stock, a cast iron skillet. The store was empty, the customers were rude and rather shady. Absolutely no place to lock up my bike, but the employees seemed nice enough.  The garden center was pitiful, I suspect that's seasonal I guess just wanted some swiss chard seeds. My main problem was the rude people who shopped there, wholly inconsiderate, and where there is a walmart there will be people letting their kids run buck wild sans supervision.

Houstess
Houstess

That massive parking lot will become a magnet for criminal activity, as it has everywhere else they have built.  And just when the Heights was getting a handle on the crime rap they have suffered under for many years.  Walmart is America's black eye.

kshilcutt
kshilcutt moderator editor

p.s. If anyone is interested in reading an excellent, even-handed and captivating look at how Walmart runs the grocery side of its Supercenters, check out "The American Way of Eating" by Tracie McMillan. The author takes undercover jobs at a Walmart, an Applebee's and farms in California alongside migrant workers to take a ground-level look at how supply chains for food and groceries in America have changed due to the influence of these huge chains and farm systems.

http://www.amazon.com/The-American-Way-Eating-Undercover/dp/1439171963/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1351524107&sr=8-2&keywords=how+america+eats

Jessica Uresti
Jessica Uresti

I went. It sucked. I was looking for bike friendly access, bike racks? None to be found. Beer selection horrible for such a huge store. Could they have a better cafe? Who goes to Mc Donald's anymore? Very disappointed.

paval
paval topcommenter

As for Wal-Mart, a store I rarely ever frequent (due to location, size, offering), but still find important on the market, let me add a few discussion points:

- economically seen there is the often repeated mantra that Wal Mart has done more for the economy by controlling prices and hence inflation, than it has done by pushing out small businesses out of the aforementioned. Seeing the case of Aldi in Germany, I would tend to agree, even though Aldi Stores are minuscule against a Super Center. 

- Wal Mart has been successful, because it also has always paid attention to current trends among the broad of its consumers (who traditionally did not care about healthy, organic, local, etc.). Wal Mart also has made several changes in its purchasing and its logistics, that benefit the community, environment and its bottom line. Both are, in my opinion, hints, that there is a change occurring in the broad of the American population towards a healthier, more food quality conscious, environmentally friendlier society.

 

As I see it, in a near future, Wal Mart will be the General Store in plus size, for the majority of the population, small specialty stores (bakery, butcher store, coffee house, fish store) will provide the avant-garde in our return to "way back when" (sounds like, but is not, an oxymoron) to people willing to pay regularly or occasionally, a premium for service, small product and an expensive, because of economies of scale, supply chain; farmers markets will sell super-local, natural and organic produce, and the community will live healthier and happier with their food  

Drew Soren
Drew Soren

Decent story by Katherine Shillcut. All the other media outlets have sung Walmart's PR story without any critique (notice how every news story mentions that they have kayaks? probably straight from the Walmart press release.). The fact is that there is nothing special about this Walmart. It is just as full of cheap Chinese goods as all the others. It is a big box design that it not suitable for an urban neighborhood. You could have probably put in 700-1000 apartment units in a mixed use development with a much smaller grocer, reducing commute times for hundreds. That would have been much greener.

HRMS3M
HRMS3M

Thank you for calling BS on Walmart's "buy local" PR.  Walmart has done nothing other than follow the other retailers in town when it comes to stocking Karbach, Southern Star and others.  Kroger, Whole Foods and others have had it for a while.  These lines are distributor ready.  Walmart just has to order it.  Big whoop.  The "small business" PR is complete BS.  There is a nail salon and a liquor store.  Everything else is national chains or franchises.  Walmart's "greening" has largely been about self interest.  The lighting system, xeroscaping, and other "green" aspects of the store are all standard energy/water saving strategies that Walmart finally started to implement long after others paved the way.  Finally, the concept of "buy local" as being a reduction in transport time completely misses the point.  "Buy local" is about supporting producers in your immediate area (150 miles is generally the rule of thumb) who are practicing sustainable or organic production to promote diversity in the food supply, support small producers and break the choke hold big AG has on our food supply.  For Walmart, "buy local" just happens to align with a cost control strategy of reducing transport costs.  All PR bs, no substance. 

paval
paval topcommenter

As Katharine rightly points out "local" is an overused (or abused) term, as it so often occurs in the food industry to confuse a large group of consumers and in search for that extra dollar in sales through marketing by using terms that sometimes make no sense. Of course everyone will understand terms like "local" different and I would think it should be kind of flexible within reason. A 50 mile radius around Houston will certainly qualify as local, by almost all accounts. But watermelons from Oklahoma are not acceptable as local. Why not use and coin the term "regional" for such products. consumers would almost all understand that this product may not be from Texas but it is also not from California. So someone consciously looking for product with the smallest carbon footprint can make the decision of buying a watermelon from California or a regional one from Oklahoma, North or West Texas.

But also the obsession with local is strange to me from a different point. There are companies that produce locally in Houston, but their products are terrible at best. So "local" should be understood and marketed as a contribution to the reduction of CO2 emissions and in many products as freshness, too.

As an example what would most readers and consumers in Houston prefer: a farmer in Rosenberg, TX that feeds his 10000 cows with corn silage and injects them with hormones for a higher and sooner milk production, and through a miracle locates his milk in a local supermarket, is selling a fresh and local product, but its quality is standard fare at best. Opposed to that a farmer in Coyote, TX, close to Waco, who produces milk from cows that eat grass outside and hay and grains when inside, he does not feed them corn silage (corn is not a natural feed for ruminants) nor injects them with hormones. He is selling his milk also in Houston. Would this milk qualify as local, because great it is for sure. (Anyone interested in trying this milk can go to Revival or Georgia's Market)?

Here the term "regional" sounds more appropriate and maybe we should start using that instead of the overused, almost prostituted term of "local"

 

 

Jay Francis
Jay Francis

I seem to remember that when this project was being developed, there were artists sketchs of what the shopping center would look like. I think it would be fun for the Press to dig those up and see just how close the actual relates to the sketches. Another comment. This was a huge plot of land that someone was probably paying a lot of taxes on every year so I am sympathetic to the fact that they would want to turn it into something. But I heard that the person who owned it was already phenomenally wealthy and that "this was to be his last great project before retiring". It occurred to me at the time that what he was creating was "just another shopping centere", interchangeable with a hundred others. But. If he had donated the land to the City and created a park in his name, his memory would have lived on for centuries. So, he traded an opportunity to be respectfully remembered forever, for "just another shopping center". Greed and small-mindedness won out. Another thought. Now that the Walmart is here, couldnt' they at least make it pretty by planting some medium size trees all over that humongous parking lot? Or create some green spaces or a dog park?

Kylejack
Kylejack topcommenter

I wonder if their local region includes Mexico. It's closer than Oklahoma...

just_wondering
just_wondering

I don't care about Walmart either way, but some of the "digs" in your piece seem unfair. For starters, when did you get a tour of the store? Was it before it opened, like most press? That might explain why it was  "empty of guests at the moment" when you toured the grocery section, if that indeed is the case. If you toured it on a Saturday morning, however, that's a different story. And what does a "somewhat limited" selection of Karbach and Saint Arnold's mean exactly? From my experience in Walmart, there are a LOT of beers offered, so there isn't a ton of every beer because there are so many. Would be curious to know how the offerings of local beer stacked up to the rest. Also, I don't really fault Walmart for getting produce from Oklahoma. "Local" itself is a hard-to-define word, and, as Wikipedia tells us, "local" is not solely a geographical concept. A United States Department of  Agriculture publication explains local food as "related to the distance between  food producers and consumers." So for that point, Walmart could be commended.

 

I also don't know that area all that well. What local businesses are in direct competition with the new Walmart that are now threatened?

Kylejack
Kylejack topcommenter

 @Anse My disgust isn't selective and I hate Target too, but Walmart arguably has worse practices, even still.

redant34
redant34

@HTownChowDown Yes. Saves gas. Everything is very close in town why drive your car 2 miles???

prof
prof

 @Dolphina *better*

as in: Gotta be better than Trader Joe's

Kylejack
Kylejack topcommenter

 @Houstess There's a lot of things I hate about Walmart, but this is one criticism I can never get behind. Walmart often buys cheap land to build stores, and that means some Walmarts aren't in the best neighborhoods. Crime already in the neighborhood becomes crime in Walmart parking lots, but that doesn't mean Walmart caused the crime.I do think, however, that Walmart could do more to ensure that they always have functioning cameras focused on the parking lot, and providing a courtesy parking lot patrol, especially at late hours.

paval
paval topcommenter

 @kshilcutt And also all people interested in learning more about our food should watch "Food Inc". which in my opinion should be compulsory material in all schools. Not as incendiary as Michael Moore's stuff and still quite eye opening.

paval
paval topcommenter

 @HRMS3M Buy local is 150 miles? That would only work in Texas or California, but for sure not at the east coast where that could be two states over? Or in Europe where it could be countries apart.As I pointed out local means something different to a lot of people. Its one of those wishy-washy terms that can be used for commercial benefit by manufacturers like "artisanal", "gluten free" on products that by definition should never contain gluten (ice cream for example, sodas or alike), "natural", etc.

I also doubt that Wal Mart is the only company that is in it for the money.

I personally prefer a company like Wal Mart becoming green because it safes them money, than if they try to become green because they have a lobby group of tree-huggers that pressure them to do so. When its about money decisions inside businesses happen a lot faster than if its for goodwill or political reasons.

Having lived in Germany for a long time I have seen how environmental-friendly policies can take decades to be implemented because it is done for political reasons. A good economical reason takes a lot less time. And humanity is running out of time when it comes to saving the earth of the collapse. Time is money and life

kshilcutt
kshilcutt moderator editor

 @paval Geez, this is the most well-composed and thoughtful comment I've seen on EOW in a while. Completely agree on the point that there's a bad side to eating "local" - not everyone/everything that's local deserves to be supported purely for being local.

kshilcutt
kshilcutt moderator editor

 @just_wondering Yes, it was a pre-opening press tour; I'm sorry if that wasn't made clear enough in the post itself. That's why the store was empty. This was not a dig at Walmart. And the "somewhat limited selection" description above was referring to the amount of craft beer on the whole, not just the selection of SA and Karbach. As for the "rest," I'm not sure if you're referring to the rest of Walmart's competitors in the area of the rest of the beer selection on offer at Walmart. And I'm honestly not sure what the hell that DOA quote actually means. It's bizarre.

Kylejack
Kylejack topcommenter

 @just_wondering "Empty of guests" wasn't a dig. She was just describing what it looked like in this pre-opening tour.

 

Other local beer that Walmart can add includes Southern Star and No Label.

Anse
Anse

I don't mean to spoil the Walmart bashing. I hate them, too.I just get this feeling that the douchebags buying up the million dollar faux Victorians in the Heights are gonna be uncomfortable with all those unsavory Walmart customers that will be driving in from the other side of North Main. Just as they were pushing them out of the hood...

HRMS3M
HRMS3M

 @Kylejack  @Houstess

 You do not think that criminals know that Walmart has exceptionally poor parking lot security and take advantage of that fact?

 

KublaConn
KublaConn

 @paval   I don't see where state lines or national borders has anything to do with "local".  Proximity is proximity and a man-made line has nothing to do with basic geographic proximity.  Would anyone try to make the claim that produce from Dequincy, Louisiana is less "local" than produce from Medina, TX based solely on the fact that, even though over a 100 miles closer, Dequincy is in another state? 

Kylejack
Kylejack topcommenter

 @paval  @HRMS3M Congress defines "local" as within 400 miles, so yes, that crosses state lines in most places. It's just that Texas is so big, so it makes this Walmart guy's comments sound strange.

paval
paval topcommenter

 @kshilcutt Thanks a lot Katharine. Your compliment sets the bar higher for future comments of mine.

just_wondering
just_wondering

 @kshilcutt

Thanks for clarifying. By rest, I was referring to the other beer brands for sale at Walmart, not the competitors.

 

Would be curious to know how you define "local" as well. Do you use it exclusively for Houston products?

 

 

 

paval
paval topcommenter

 @Kylejack  @HRMS3M Again, a definition that may work in the US, but I doubt that European local food movements, would accept 400 miles as local. And neither would the majority of aware consumers. I reckon this was a political decision, it lacks of much sense if we consider that an 18 wheeler uses 7 mpg at 55mph.  That would mean that for a 400 mile trek the trailer burns through 57 gallons of gas and is on the road for 7 hours. Even for Texas size that is a lot of hours and gas.

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