Relish Austin: Wheatsville, Texas’ only retail food co-op, opens long-awaited second store

Wheatsville Food Co-op general manager Dan Gillotte says that Austinites have been asking about a second location of the Central Austin grocery store since, oh, 1982.

The co-op opened on 29th Street and Lamar Boulevard in 1976, but not long after it moved to its home at 3101 Guadalupe St. five years later, customers, especially those who lived south of what was then Town Lake, started inquiring about when the co-op might add another location.

Last week, longtime Wheatsville fans finally got what they’ve been asking for and more: a second location in South Austin at 4001 S. Lamar Blvd. that Gillotte and others in the co-op say is a stepping stone for more stores in Austin.

The new store has almost twice as much retail space as the Guadalupe location and a new 2,500-square-foot bakery, which will eventually provide baked goods for the existing stores and any future co-ops, says Wheatsville brand manager Raquel Dadomo.

Dadomo and Gillotte say there aren’t any concrete plans for where or when those next outlets might open, but future stores were definitely in mind as they planned this second location.

“With each store, we want to create some infrastructure to build upon,” Dadomo says. Creating a fully functioning bakery “is our way of planting a flag to say we’re building toward having more co-ops.”

So why did it take so long to open a second location?

It’s been 37 years since Wheatsville opened, but even with Austin’s explosive growth and thriving community of co-ops, which now includes a brewpub and bakery, Wheatsville remains the only cooperatively owned retail food store in the state.

In the 1980s and ’90s, Austin was booming, and with Whole Foods opening in 1980 and Central Market in 1994, so was the competition for grocery dollars.

Gillotte says they were not able to start thinking seriously about adding another store until the early 2000s, and after talking to other co-ops around the country, they had to make sure the needs of the primary store weren’t overlooked at the expense of expanding.

“We realized that the path to a second store was through the Guadalupe store,” he says. They put $4.7 million into a 13-month renovation that finished in 2009 and by 2011 were again in a financial position to make concrete plans for a second location.

“We can’t achieve everything we want with just one store or even two,” Gillotte says, citing the co-op’s ultimate goal: Create a cooperatively run economy with more local and sustainable food, which improves the quality of life for everyone involved.

Local, organic and sustainable are buzzwords that many stores throw around, but few of them can claim that the majority of the produce sold, sometimes as much as 90 percent, is organic, and much of it comes from local farms. Wheatsville sets sustainability standards for both meat and seafood, and it also features one of the biggest selections of raw, vegan and gluten-free products in Austin.

With more than 1,500 products from Austin food companies, Wheatsville is often the first place to carry products from local food start-ups, such as Bearded Brothers bars or Yellowbird hot sauce.

Whole Foods Market and Central Market also tout their efforts to work with local farmers and entrepreneurs, but unlike its competitors, Wheatsville is the kind of place that embraces all forms of transparency, even sharing financial records that most Americans wouldn’t reveal to their own neighbors.

One of the biggest differences between Wheatsville and every other grocery store in the state is that is it cooperatively owned by more than 13,000 people, who each pay $55 for a share of the co-op in exchange for member privileges that include some in-store discounts and “patronage rebates” in profitable years.

Gillotte says he expects that number to climb quickly with the South Austin store now open.

At the opening ceremony Friday, longtime co-op owner Jody Zemel was brought to tears when asked what the store has meant to her and her community since she first joined in 1987.

The store “embodies the principles that I try to live by,” she says. “Whole Foods and Central Market are great, but someone is getting rich. But here, everybody’s making a living and supporting other people who are growing food and making cool products and saving the environment and living their lives in the right way, and that is a really good thing.”

Since the early 1990s, Zemel has had to drive from her home in South Austin to the campus-area store, but not anymore. “It’s so exciting,” she says of having the new store in her backyard. “My whole life has changed.”

Co-op board president Rose Marie Klee said Friday that Wheatsville has never been merely about providing a place to shop for food. “Can a grocery store really make the world a better place? Through all these years, we’ve learned that the answer is a resounding yes,” she told the opening day crowd.

By running a successful cooperatively owned business, Klee said that Wheatsville has been a transformative force for farmers and producers, customers and even staff. “I can’t tell you how much it means when employees tell me that they are better people because they work here,” she says. “The truth is that we all do better when we all do better.”

Bill Bickford is someone who has felt that transformation firsthand.

He started as a cashier in 1999 when he was still in college, and 14 years later, he has taken the reins as manager of the new store, where he’ll oversee an initial staff of about 60.

“We couldn’t wait even one more minute to get open,” Bickford told the crowd on Friday. He’d worked a succession of 12-, 13- and even 18-hour days to get there, “but it’s worth it,” he says.

Among the new features are expanded bulk and fresh/perishable product departments, both of which reflect a growing consumer demand for ingredients required for cooking from scratch.

To help further that trend, the store also features a teaching kitchen and community classroom, where they plan to host cooking classes, demonstrations, tastings and lectures.

The classroom also doubles as extra seating for people who come to the store for prepared foods, including their popular breakfast tacos and popcorn tofu po’boy. Bickford says that within a week, they’ll launch a line of burritos, thanks in part to customer requests for more grab-and-go options.

The new Wheatsville bakehouse is under the direction of Robin Roosa, who, in true co-op spirit, traveled to Wild Oats Co-op in Williamstown, Mass., to get training from their in-house bakers.

With the Ann Richards School around the corner, the store successfully sought a waiver to sell beer and wine, but they aren’t selling any of it by the glass or growler.

Customers can buy kombucha from local company Kosmic Kombucha in two flavors: Pear of the Dog, which is Wheatsville’s signature flavor, and Salty Dog. Maine Root soda, another local company, is available on tap, too.

In front of the store, cyclists will find a bike repair stand, and employees who bike to work now have showers to use. (The store offers a rebate program for staffers who commute by bicycle.)

Gillotte says that if they “hit a home run” in the first six months with the South Lamar store, they’ll start working on plans for future co-ops, but in the meantime, they want to make sure they excel in the areas that set them apart from the competitors in the half-mile area around the store — Central Market, Sprouts, Randall’s and Target — and those a little farther, including Whole Foods Market and the newly opened Trader Joe’s.

“They all do excellent things, but we know we are strong in organic, local and sustainable and in establishing a connection to products and producers,” he says.

“We want to find our voice with our look and feel down here and take a place at the table.”

(Editor’s note: This story has been updated with the address of the store.)

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