This morning some of the My Table folks were among the media invited by Central Market to observe what progress had come to fruition after 51 long weeks of construction. The guided tour took about an hour and concluded with a chocolate and coffee tasting. (Click through the photos above to see what’s new.)

Built in 2001, Central Market was impressive when it debuted in Houston. It made weekly grocery shopping an adventure, a tasty pleasure and, for many, a weekly rite. But after 16 years of growth, the H-E-B corporate powers-that-be decided it was time to give the only Houston iteration of their upscale concept an additional 10,000 square feet. The weekend crowds long ago grew to overflowing, parking was tough, the aisles were perpetually jammed with excited first-timers, and the circuitous maze had become intimidating.

As it turns out, a whole lot of changes beyond space growth — Central Market is now one square foot larger than the massive Bunker Hill H-E-B — will greet shoppers. Expect reorganization of shelving and aisles, many new products and features such as:

  • “An expanded fresh produce department, making it the largest in size and assortment in the H-E-B family.” The PR statement isn’t an overreach; this is a huge produce department with dozens of varieties of tropical fruits, a lush landscape of locally grown herbs, more apple and pear varieties than any other grocer in Texas and bins full of onions and potatoes just waiting to be fondled. No more cart traffic jams in the fresh vegetable and fruit sections, either: wider spaces allow for you to navigate around others easily as you make your way through the store.
  • “The largest assortment of quality olive oils in the country – complete with tasting station, and more.” Just how many olive oils? About 360, many of which are limited edition oils from small producers in Italy and Spain. Central Market admitted to buying entire productions of oils, putting them on shelves and being unable to bring in more from the same producer until the next year’s harvest comes in. Sample bottles are in an controlled environment so as not to be affected by air or light in the store, meaning what you taste from the sample is what you’ll taste from the bottle you bring home.
  • “An in-house, bean-to-bar chocolate kitchen,” is something Houston needed, and we didn’t realize it until now. There is a chocolate factory now inside of Central Market near the wine department. Single-origin beans from the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Madagascar, Tanzania and Brazil are shipped to the store in big bags, and chocolatiers make chocolate on site, with bins of chocolate available for bulk buying. It seems as though the chocolate-bar department has grown as well, with it facing the bean-to-bar kitchen. “We were buying some of the best chocolate in the world,” explained a Central Market representative. “So we decided to make our own.”
  • “180 specialty wines purchased exclusively for Houston’s Central Market store.” Customers have shown a trend in buying wines all over the spectrum at this location, and a new specialty wine wall boasts hard-to-find vintages and selections for wine geeks. Currently, Central Market’s annual Passport campaign, which begins today, focuses on the South this year, and 35 wines from Virginia and North Carolina are in stock to give Texans a taste of smaller producing states that still boast big, surprising flavors.
  • “A new coffee, tea and smoothie bar” boasting rare beans and nitro cold brew, less common teas and $5 to $7 smoothies will keep you buzzing while you shop. Or, take the other route (at the same bar) and try one of the wines or beer on tap. The current trend of drinking while shopping continues to grow.
  • “A vast expansion of international foods featuring the highest quality items from the British Isles, India, Greece/Mediterranean region, and Asia – including Japan and Korea. Many of these products have never been carried before at Central Market or H-E-B.” Indeed, if you’ve been enjoying buying Asian products on the far west side of Houston, know that there is some competition now that Houston’s Central Market has major muscle in buying Asian snacks, sauces and dry goods.

With these expansions and additions, you can expect to find Central Market filled with foodies as it always has been, but with an easier ability to navigate the store, fuller baskets, and a drink in hand.