Austinites might be excited for Trader Joe’s and the second Wheatsville Co-op grocery stores to open this year, but the folks who live in or near the Mueller neighborhood are really, really excited for the H-E-B to open this week.
How excited? It took less than 15 minutes for neighbors to snatch up the 800 reservations for the soft opening on Friday and Saturday for the fast-casual restaurant inside the 83,000-square-foot building, the most environmentally friendly of all the 350 H-E-Bs in Texas and Mexico. Earlier this month, managers had to order extra signage about the July 26 opening date because so many people were walking up to the store and hoping to go inside.
The H-E-B at Mueller has been the talk of this part of town since 2011, when developers of this former airport site-turned-21st century neighborhood announced that the San Antonio-based grocer won the contract to build a 21st century grocery store near East 51st Street and Airport Boulevard.
H-E-B executives started meeting with neighborhood groups to find out what they wanted to see at the store and with engineers and designers to create a building that could operate on half as much energy and water as a typical store, while still functioning as a place to shop for food.
The result is what H-E-B is calling its greenest, most innovative store, one that is already exceeding its eco-friendly goals and, with the help of a free-to-reserve meeting room and the in-store restaurant, Cafe Mueller, is poised to become a community hub when it opens Friday.
When approaching the store, it’s hard to miss the swooping roof, with a ceramic coating that reflects heat, that shades the entryway and much of the building, creating a “microclimate” that sets the stage for the technologically advanced changes inside, says Charlie Wernette, H-E-B’s director of engineering.
The offset sliding doors prevent hot or cold air from rushing in and out when customers enter the store, and unlike the typically goosebump-inducing refrigerated sections of most stores, those sections in the Mueller H-E-B have doors and sliding lids to keep the food cold but not the customers.
“We’re used to (opening the door to the fridge) in our house,” Wernette says, but it’s a change that shoppers will have to get used to.
Instead of using Freon, the refrigeration units throughout the store use either propane or chilled water to both keep food and the store cool and even to transfer heat out of the building. (In part of the store, the floor is chilled or heated with water under the cement, depending on the time of year.)
Reclaimed water is used in the toilets and to irrigate the trees and landscape plants around the building and in the parking lot, which is designed to channel runoff through the plant beds, which helps filter the water before it flows into detention ponds.
The ceiling is elevated in ways that let northern light in, which reduces the amount of lighting needed to illuminate the store, but the windows facing south are frosted to keep the stronger sun from heating the building.
Every light inside and outside uses LED bulbs, and many of them are motion-activated or automated to dim or turn off when not in use or depending on how much natural light is coming into the store.
Wernette is eagerly tracking the energy use, reporting that on paper, the store has reduced its energy use by almost 80 percent, a full 30 percent more than they were shooting for originally. H-E-B anticipates that when the store goes through certification inspections in the next year, it will exceed the LEED Silver-certified Montrose store in Houston and the 4-Star Austin Energy-rated store on Slaughter Lane in South Austin. (Smartphone users can get their own environmental tour of the store by going to greenatheb.com from a mobile device.)
Company spokeswoman Leslie Sweet says that the store has generated 315 jobs and will be open from 6 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week, with the restaurant open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Cafe Mueller is under the direction of chef Sidni Hargroder, a Le Cordon Bleu graduate who worked at restaurants including Asti and San Francisco’s Aqua before joining the H-E-B team in 2007.
Hargroder and her 40-person staff have designed a menu to suit all kinds of tastes, from cheese pizzas and spaghetti and meatballs for the kids to charcuterie and cheese plates, house-pickled vegetables, goat cheese caprese salads, sliders, green curry and coconut chicken and near-Franklin Barbecue-quality brisket for their foodie parents.
Most of the dishes, including the pastas, panini and 8- and 12-inch pizzas, fall in the $6 to $10 range, and the three meat, two side barbecue plate is the most expensive at $12.
The six beers on tap — 512 Pecan Porter, Live Oak Liberation Ale, Saint Arnold Fancy Lawnmower, Real Ale Devil’s Backbone, Adelbert’s Naked Nun and Circle Envy Amber — are all from Texas, most from Austin. Customers also can get 32- and 64-ounce growlers filled at the counter.
The wine menu will feature at least a few to-be-determined Texas wines, but the current 15-bottle list features solid choices from California, New Zealand and Italy.
Even though the most expensive drink on the menu is a $6 glass of wine (beers run about $4 for a pint), the store plans to offer a happy hour Monday through Friday.
The cafe, which seats 50 people inside and 86 outside, will be open only for lunch or dinner for now, with live music on the patio on the weekends. The patio also features a bar where you can order drinks and food and a water sculpture to separate patrons from the nearby driveway.
In addition to the tortilleria, a Cooking Connection chef demo area and drive-through pharmacy, a highlight of the new store is the ability for the bakery to make gluten-free baked goods.
It’s not a separate bakery, Sweet says, but the staff has been trained on how to avoid cross-contamination, and all the gluten-free breads — white, cinnamon raisin, cranberry pistachio, jalapeño cheese and three-seed — will be baked at the same time, not intermixed with the traditional breads, rolls and cakes.
The plates, bowls and utensils at the cafe are compostable, and as with other Austin stores, what food and produce they can’t recover by sending to the Capital Area Food Bank of Texas, they compost through Organics by Gosh.