Cornering the Market
With its second location, Wheatsville expands its cooperative mission
By Kate Thornberry, Fri., Oct. 11, 2013
The exterior may still be under construction, but the long-awaited second outpost of Wheatsville Co-op is open for business – and business is good. The new store, located at 4001 S. Lamar, has so far consistently beaten the governing board's most optimistic sales projections; in fact, Wheatsville's board is currently considering bringing the number of Austin locations up to as many as five over the next few years. Since the economic downturn, the popular cooperative has seen its membership more than double. Although Wheatsville has always been affordable, the growth is not driven by low prices; rather, it reflects an increasing desire on the part of Austinites to invest in local businesses that directly benefit the community.
So how do cooperatives benefit communities? From their beginnings in the 17th century, cooperatives have been set up to protect the interests of the less powerful members of society – workers, consumers, farmers, and producers. Rather than being owned by a single individual or distant shareholders, cooperatives are owned by their customers and employees. They are governed democratically (one member/one vote), and exist to meet specific needs of their members – such as housing, textbooks, or food – rather than to maximize profits. Other local cooperatives include the University Co-op, College Houses, Black Star Co-op Pub & Brewery, and University Federal Credit Union.
In a grocery cooperative, this means that members are able to purchase high-quality foods for the lowest possible price. Wheatsville has long been a leader in offering Fair Trade, organic, sustainable, and ecologically sound products; they have also been instrumental in fostering many local farms, ranches, and small businesses. This way, the co-op reduces its carbon footprint, while stimulating the local economy.
It is interesting to note that the owners of Wheatsville – the people who shop there – have consistently made decisions that are extremely progressive: to be environmentally responsible; to strongly support sustainability practices in farming, ranching, and fishing; to choose organics whenever possible; to pay a living wage to workers; and to support other local businesses. It is heartwarming proof that people will often collectively choose to take the high road, selecting long-term rather than short-term pay-offs, when they are able to call the shots.
Walking through the new South Lamar Wheatsville, local products are on display in every department. In the produce section, all fruits and vegetables cite country of origin, and the locals even cite farm of origin. Last week, for instance, Johnson's Backyard Garden supplied sweet potatoes, butternut squash, arugula, kale, and peppers; DiIorio Farms supplied purple hull peas; Wild River Farms supplied large heads of buttercrunch lettuce; and all the summer squash hailed from Green Gate Farms.
Having a large retail organization like Wheatsville buying direct can make or break a small farm's bottom line. "Wheatsville has been an amazing partner over the years," said Sam Thorp, wholesale coordinator at Johnson's Backyard Garden. "It's great to see the support they give on a daily basis. We can rely on their business throughout the year."
The refrigerator case is dense with local products: Buddha's Brew Kombucha, Kosmic Kombucha, Margarita's Tortillas, Paqui Tortillas, Baby Zach's hummus, Mediterranean Chef, WaterOak Farms goat milk, and Mill-King milks, half-and-half, and cream. White Mountain Bulgarian Yogurt dominates the yogurt case, and Chameleon Cold-Brew coffee and Moonshine Sweet Tea chill alongside Fruitful Hill Farm and H & J Ranch pastured eggs. Locally roasted coffees include Casa Brasil, Katz, Fara, and Third Coast.
"If there is a local choice, we will carry it," says Dan Gillotte, Wheatsville's general manager. "The only exceptions would be, if we tried an item and it just didn't connect with customers. Most of the time, the opposite is the case. ... People are very loyal, and very vocal, about their favorite products. We are usually the first place local start-ups sell to."
In the cheese section, Pure Luck goat cheese, WaterOak Farm chèvre and ricotta, Mill-King cheese curds, Full Quiver Farms cream cheeses, and the full line of Dos Lunas artisan cheeses are on display alongside more pedestrian, nationally sourced cheeses. There are fewer local choices in the meat section. Pastured, cruelty-free meats are expensive, and the majority of Wheatsville's meats are sourced from Niman Ranch, a national supplier that is a leader in the field. There are, however, frozen cuts of meat from local ranches Windy Hill Farm, Richardson Farms, and Bastrop Cattle Company.
One of the most exciting things about the new south location is the bakery. The original Wheatsville store on Guadalupe has never had enough room for a bakehouse, even after renovation. "We were never able to offer the quality of bread we wanted to offer, pricewise," laments Gillotte. In designing the new store, a large bakery was a priority. The new bakehouse is helmed by Robin Roosa, a master baker who trained at Whole Foods, Randall's, and Wild Oats Market cooperative in Massachusetts.
Roosa definitely has the knack. The breads that the Wheatsville bakehouse is turning out are top-of-the-line. The rolls are fresh and soft, the sourdough is chewy and aromatic, and the sandwich breads are light, robust in flavor, and reasonably shelf-stable to boot. I predict that the Wheatsville bakehouse will be a driving force in getting folks through the front door to try the Co-op experience; there is nowhere nearby where you can get comparable breads. And in a few weeks, the bakehouse will begin supplying the north Wheatsville store as well.
Next to the bakery is the deli, which dwarfs the original Wheatsville's deli in kitchen space, display area, and seating. Over the deli an arrow points to the kitchen proclaiming, "This is where the Popcorn Tofu is made!" – a reference to one of Wheatsville's most popular products. The deli offers a full espresso bar, pastries, doughnuts, bagels, tacos (breakfast and otherwise), Wheatsville's "Signature Sandwiches" (including the addictive Popcorn Tofu Po'boy), and smoothies. Everything is made with top-notch, organic, Fair Trade, and local ingredients; there are also more vegan and vegetarian options than competitors offer.
To the left of the deli is a fabulous soup-and-salad bar, one side of which is devoted to self-serve hot lunches. Each day the hot-food bar changes: On Monday it is Mexican; Tuesday, Italian; Wednesday is "comfort food"; Thursday is Indian food; and Friday is devoted to wings and fried catfish.
Another major way Wheatsville benefits the community: providing good jobs. Currently Wheatsville employs 220 people, none of whom are expected to work for less than a living wage. "We keep track of what is determined to be a living wage for the Austin area," says Gillotte, "and that is our entry-level wage, with frequent raises during the first two years. Full-time employees get medical, dental, life, and vision insurance ... and we don't try to keep people artificially part time, either."
"Our goal is to add more good jobs to the Austin economy, not fewer!" laughs Gillotte. "What we are trying to do is the opposite of downsizing. Our goal is to thrive, and we want Austin to thrive right along with us."
For a photo tour of the new Wheatsville, visit austinchronicle.com/photos.