Rex Howell-Smith literally grew up in restaurant kitchens, flipping burgers and taking out the trash since he was 12. His grandmother was a master baker of pastry and pies, largely with hotels, and his mother owned an all-American diner. “I was born in Oklahoma, schooled in Pennsylvania, went to Hawaii for two weeks and stayed for 23 years,” he sums up of his life before he landed in Texas as the business development manager/buyer for Central Market.
Asked to explain the Hawaii part of his narrative, Howell-Smith, 66, says he’d been working as a chef at Brennan’s, in Dallas, an outpost of the New Orleans institution, and was about to take another chef job in Toronto. He packed up his belongings and traveled to Hawaii first for a vacation.
“I wasn’t even out of the airport when I decided ‘I’ll just stay here,’” he says. He instantly loved the smell of the air and had his roommate ship his boxes to Hawaii instead of Toronto. He found work at the Hyatt Regency Waikiki Beach doing food and beverage management, followed by a number of gigs at restaurants and nightclubs, before answering an ad for a personal chef who was willing to travel. His boss turned out to be Doris Duke, once the richest woman in the world.
For nearly three years he traveled around with Duke to her various estates, enjoying her unlimited food budget, but in all that time the billionaire only gave him one day off. He left to work for a wine and deli company, which was subsequently bought by Foodland, a grocer serving the Hawaiian islands. Howell-Smith was part of the acquisition and ended up becoming a buyer of specialty health foods for the chain.
About 20 years ago, he felt it was time to move closer to his parents in Oklahoma, who were in declining health. He got a job as a buyer at Central Market, not far from the Oklahoma border. The ensuing years have seen Central Market, owned by H-E-B, double in size to 10 stores, adding more buyers to the team.
“It’s about flavor and taste and discovery, where a chef would go to shop,” Howell-Smith says, explaining how Central Market is different from other high-end grocers. “We carry things others would never carry, like foie gras, $400 bottles of Champagne, 400 cheeses, 60 to 70 types of sausage made in-house, 40 to 60 kinds of apples, wines from 1,200 wineries. We dry-age our own beef and all the steaks are cut in the store, not prepackaged. The majority of our seafood has never been frozen.”
Furthermore, Central Market brings in music and dancers for events, has a cooking school, offers catering, wine classes, produces many private-label products, and bakes bread from a sourdough starter that’s as old as the first store (1994).
But the best part?
“I love holding hands with smaller companies,” he says. “When someone says to me, ‘Do you remember when I was making this in my kitchen? Now I’m a national brand.’ That’s my quiet victory in the whole business.”