The Saga of Henke & Pillot
Many a young man has arrived in Houston seeking to make his way in the world and achieve success. In the summer of 1872, 21 year old Henry Henke arrived in Houston. He had spent the previous six years in New Orleans learning all aspects of the grocery business. He had hoped to go into business with a friend in Galveston, but this didn’t work out. Although the area had an abundance of grocery stores, he decided to try his luck in Houston anyway. On September 15, 1872, he established Henke’s New Orleans Store at 811 Congress Avenue across from Market Square. Although he had three male employees, he did all of his own hauling, clerking and most of his porter work. The small store was a mere 1500 square feet and Henry lived over the store. In 1882 Henke hired young Camille G. Pillot to take charge of the company books of H. Henke & Co. Camille did such a good job that Henry offered him a small interest in the company and eventually made him a full partner. The firm’s name was changed to Henke & Pillot.
The property at Milam and Congress was purchased in 1892 and a new two story building was erected. By 1910, another story was added to this building. By 1921 the company occupied the entire ½ block with a full front on Congress. This same year the company added a self-serve department. The store sold at both wholesale and retail basis – a consumer could buy at wholesale prices if he bought in unbroken lots. By 1925, there were two locations, one at 302 Milam and another at 2800 Travis. A large warehouse at Railroad and Second streets was added and the total holdings encompassed 101,300 square feet.
In 1922, the firm had over thirty departments and operated 21 wagons and 17 trucks. The work force included 245 employees. In addition to the usual familiar departments in a grocery store, the company offered delivery and had a large hotel and restaurant department. Delivery of goods necessitated the maintenance of a wagon yard, employment of blacksmiths and wheelwrights, and a herd of mules
In 1922 Henke & Pillot celebrated its silver anniversary and “fifty years of progress” with a gigantic open house that lasted all day. Management touted that the success of the store was based on its motto, “The Most of the Best for the Price”. By this time the firm’s sales averaged $13,523 and annual sales soared to almost $5 million.
Henry Henke would leave Houston in 1901 due to ill health. Camille Pillot took charge of the business and served as the active head of the firm. He was assisted for many decades by Mr. C.H. Kuhlmann, general manager and brother-in law to Mr. Henke. Pillot’s son, Norman V. Pillot would serve as buyer.
Camille Pillot understood that good transportation was crucial to the city’s commercial development so he pushed hard for a deep-water port. He served as one of the first three commissioners for the Harris County Houston Ship Channel Navigation District and one of the five original members of the City Harbor Board. Before 1900, Pillot would build a handsome mansion on McKinney Avenue. As a result of his work on the development of the ship channel, Pillot became a water sportsman. His sumptuous 103 foot yacht, the Augusta, had been built in the Nelson Shipyard in Harrisburg and included a fine mahogany interior and numerous modern conveniences. The Augusta was leased by the Navy in 1917 and spent the duration of WWI on patrol duty in Galveston waters under the command of Camille’s son, Ensign Norman V. Pillot. The yacht was returned to Mr. Pillot after the armistice. He died in 1953 at the age of 92.
In May 1955, the Cincinnati-based Kroger Company acquired Henke & Pillot and Henkes’ logo was changed to look similar to the Kroger logo. By 1956, the chain operated 27 stores in Houston, Galveston, Pasadena, Velasco, Beaumont, Port Arthur, and Orange. In 1966, six years short of its 100th anniversary, Kroger announced that it would retire the Henke & Pillot name.
The Henke & Pillot firm at one time claimed the unique distinction of being the largest distributor of groceries in America under one roof. As often happens, a successful business concern serves as an attractive acquisition for a larger company. Such was the fate of this well-known and well-respected regional grocery company that had become a part of everyday life in Houston. For more information about Camille Pillot contact The Heritage Society.