Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Eagle Ford echoes?

If you read the news these days, you can't escape the headlines declaring American energy independence to be within our reach (although some are skeptical about what it would mean or whether or not it's even possible). 

All this, of course, is due to advances in drilling technology coupled with high global oil prices, a synergistic pair of circumstances that have increased production - and employment - in a number of key areas nationally, including the nearby Eagle Ford shale, for which the increases in productivity have just been jaw-dropping

And then there's the curious case of the Webster Steak and Shake, which was recently constructed in fine franchise form, but then never opened.  It sits there not far from us (you can see it as you drive on NB IH-45 near the new NASA Road fly-over) like a virginal retail monument to... something we're not quite sure of. 

What could these two things possibly have in common?!

Well, there's a chance that they are all part of the same tightly-interconnected phenomenon that sent me hiking to no less than three different Clear Lake grocery stores last week in order to obtain the type of milk that I buy for my family (organic skim).
These days, I'm having more and more trouble with what should be one of the easiest jobs that any domestic goddess has to do.  Here's a shelf with one lone gallon sitting in the organic section - and this pic was taken before noon on a Sunday, so we can't blame this run-on-the-milk-bank on the lateness of the day.
This shows conditions in another local store just a few hours later:
None whatsoever.  I'm not trying to accuse any one g-store in particular here - this is happening with all of them.  I've greyed out identifying marks in these photos so as not to appear to be picking on any retail chain in particular. 
And it isn't just milk.  I'm often greeted with the same empty-shelf phenomenon when searching for my other favorite grocery products. 
I'm a great fan of this brand of granola bar because they are reasonably priced while at the same time lacking the usual low-nutritional-quality carbohydrate fillers that characterize so many other brands.  But finding them on the shelves?  Difficult. 
This scene may not look significant to you until you understand why it's only ONE lineage of this pomegranate juice that is missing here (and which is almost impossible to obtain locally, by the way).  The product that usually fills the gap to the left is the plain straight-up stuff - the pure pomegranate juice.  The others are diluted with other juices such as cherry or grape.  Pomegranate juice is extremely expensive but is widely believed to convey significant health benefits, so the consumers who spring for it are educated and not so dumb as to spend their money on a cut or watered-down version of the product, which is arguably what these other choices are. 
So how might this third issue, namely grocery scarcity, relate to Eagle Ford and Steak and Shake?
  • They might all reflect workforce availability which has been impacted by the lure of great jobs and good money in the revived Texas oilfield, both within the producing areas themselves, and in spin-off industries, of which Houston has a mother lode. 
  • It has been speculated that the Steak and Shake was built but then failed to open because the operators may be having difficulty finding the people they need to staff it. 
  • I suspect (but have no proof) that this lack of stocking across multiple grocery stores may also reflect significant staffing problems.  It does not matter what time of day I shop:  if I go early in the morning, the shelves are empty from the night before, and no staff can be seen actively stocking them.  If I go mid-day, a few stocking clerks can be seen in the store, but many shelves are still empty. I have not been able to identify any local store where I can pick a specific time of day or a day of week and consistently find product on the shelves. 
  •  Tellingly, I now tend to see staff working to stock shelves during peak grocery rush hours - which is extremely inconvenient as huge fork-lifted pallets of stock block grocery aisles and exacerbate shopper congestion in the stores.  I suspect this might be happening because the managers cannot find a sufficient number of staff who are willing to work the night shift, which is the time when most re-stocking traditionally occurred. 
And it's not just the products I've shown above for which these stocking shortages are happening.  Those are just the pictures that I happened to take in an isolated photographic effort about a week ago. 

There are shortages of other products as well, including certain meats, cheeses, and snack foods, but they all have one thing in common:  the products I've found to be missing (including the sub-set depicted above) are generally higher-quality, more nutritionally dense than the bulk of the factory-farmed, highly-processed, mass-produced big-brand alternatives that comprise the bulk of any given grocery store's offerings.  So there may be a two-fold issue manifesting here - an employment shortage PLUS the fact that the Clear Lake's healthiest consumer segment is chronically underserved in the marketplace to start with.

And we were painfully aware of that second part already, of course.  Several years ago when HEB Clear Lake Market opened to great pomp and ceremony, I attended a "grand opening" meet-and-greet that was held by their corporate management staff (not the store management - the higher-ups).  I spoke to this one important-looking lady in particular and asked the following question:

"It's great that you've moved into this new space, but why, why, why didn't you make it into a Central Market instead of into an ordinary HEB store?!?!"

She looked at me with this grin that was both cheery and absolutely dismissive and replied,

"Our market research indicates that this is not a health-conscious community."

I was completely stunned.  Struck dumb.  I was so shocked by the directness and decisiveness and lack of political-correctness of her reply that I couldn't even muster a feeble rebuttal.  I simply wobbled away like a cartoon character whose head had just been clashed between two cymbals.

I couldn't find an example cartoon showing my beloved Bugs Bunny, so here's a low-res partial screengrab from this site.
I quoted her exactly there.  I know this because her choice of words reverberates within my head to this very day. 

I'm not sure how this conclusion was reached.  Here in "greater Clear Lake" we have a highly educated population concentrated largely in the medical, petrochemical, and space sciences industries, and yet what falls out of who-knows-what formulaic analysis is this notion that our scientifically-apprised residents prefer to stuff their collective faces with cheese puffs and the like

Meanwhile, local competition for nutritionally-dense alternatives is becoming downright ridiculous.  I know what health-conscious people have started to do, because I've started to do it myself:  once you locate a desired product that is actually in stock, you simply buy out the entire shelf, because you know it's not going to be there on your next trip to the store.  But this, of course, makes things worse for everyone else who is attempting to buy normal weekly quantities of those same products.

So on every recent occasion where I've gone shopping only to be greeted by this particular comestible consumer vacuum, I have muttered under my breath, "D*mn the Eagle Ford, anyway, for doing this to local labor supply!" but grocery stocking labor is probably only part of the supply and demand equation here.

At any rate, if this were our worst problem in life, we'd have to declare ourselves to be in pretty fine shape.  Still, I look forward to a future when we have better access to the healthier alternatives that so many of us obviously demand. 
Some people hear this message from their doctors.
The rest of us simply use common sense, and we try to grocery shop accordingly, with only limited success.
(Microsoft clip art.)


  1. the "market research" is probably a perpetual black mark left on this community after the closure of the Fiesta at I-45 and NASA 1 back in the early 90's. That place was amazing, and HUGE, with an in-house hydroponic garden *wall* growing fresh produce and rows upon rows of foods from around the world.
    Probably built way ahead of its time.
    Plus access was terrible.

  2. Access WAS terrible. It's very frustrating to see good businesses fail simply because of location, location, location. Fiesta was there well before most of the residential development density was added west of IH-45. It was so hard for east-of-45ers to get to it that people didn't bother.

    The other location, location, location example that comes to mind is Dimassi's. My family has been fans of the original restaurant on Richmond (now moved to the opposite end of that strip center) from way back in the early 1990's when they had crappy decor and a dime-store-framed photograph of Hakeem Olajuwon on the wall signed "I love the food in this place". A few years ago, Mr. Dimassi opened a Clear Lake location - in THE single worst place possible (in that retail no-man's peninsula on IH-45 NB between Chair King and Barnes and Noble). There's NO WAY that ANY restaurant is going to survive in that ill-conceived place, so Dimassi's was destined to fail. And there went one of my very few local healthy food restaurant options; we resumed the occasional long trek back to Richmond. Sigh...


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