These days, it seems like our city charter mandates a natural foods grocery every 1.5 miles or so, but the world was not always thus. Sure, Wheatsville's popcorn tofu has its own Facebook fan page now, but when the co-op opened in 1976, it was the lone beacon in a wilderness of newly minted weirdos, crying out for a place to score meatless protein combos and pesticide-free munchies. While the grassroots grocer in part because of its idiosyncratic staff and the availability of bulk buckwheat groats grew a patchouli-ish rep, in truth Wheatsville was more concerned with member-ownership, cultivating community, and expanding our food choices than it was about dictating lifestyles: The original mission statement called for serving "a broad range of people" and "supplying high-quality food and non-doctrinaire information." In the Eighties and Nineties, the co-op grew and grew into its own, adopting the fertile slacker ethos that made it as entwined with Austin arts as any local business. There were the arts and herb fairs and proto-maker bazaars, all a blast, but there was also an ideology that (along with our long-gone affordable rental market) supported art workers' needs. By the mid-Nineties, along with the state school for the deaf and the Texas Legislature, Wheatsville was on the unwritten list of musician-friendly day-job providers. Countless iconic Austin performers punched its clock, from Ted Roddy to Lisa (then Dave) Cameron, and you knew when you walked in the door, you would be swept up by some floor manager's strange and perfect musical choice on the P.A., played just loud enough so's you'd notice. In 1998, this affinity resulted in The Wheat Album, a store-produced CD that featured such totally Nineties bands as Sixteen Deluxe, King Cheese, and Palaxy Tracks, all boasting members who worked there. Oh, and let's not forget the food. Wheastville was part of the first wave of now-standard eco-trends bulk buying, rewarding reuse, purchasing from local farms but its deli is also a wonderland of delicious concoctions, from Quincy Erickson's mind-blowing taste-sensations in the Eighties to its legendary veggie Frito pies, black-bean tacos, and the aforementioned "popcorn tofu." Though it makes a comfortable space for those who follow austere diets, Wheatsville has always been a place to indulge the senses, not deny them. Its recent expansion has been done intelligently, keeping the reasonable scale but bringing to the forefront, and adding to, the pleasures it has always celebrated (two words: cheese island!). When they turn the jams back up, it'll be paradise.
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