Wheatsville Food Co-op

General Manager Dan Gillotte (center) with today’s Wheatsville Food Co-op crew.

By Elizabeth Winslow
Photography by Dustin Meyer

In the 1960s and ’70s, the environmental movement was just taking hold in our national consciousness, and a demand was growing for healthy, natural foods. Regular grocery stores were filled with processed “food of the future,” and natural, unprocessed foods were not much of an option.

It was at this time that food co-ops began to appear as an alternative to the conventional grocery store—allowing an invested community to have access to healthy, unprocessed foods. And alternative ideas also flourished as new paths were forged—early grocery co-ops in Austin included one known for its “pay what you like” model, and another that did its accounting in harmony with the phases of the moon.

Also during this time, a group formed around the idea of community access to healthy, natural foods and the Austin Community Project (ACP) was born. By 1973, the ACP included two food co-ops, several buying clubs, three farms, a bakery, four restaurants and numerous housing co-ops. Soon, food co-op activists were discussing a new vision for the food co-ops. They wanted to create a bigger store with more space, and products that would entice mainstream shoppers while staying true to the original founders’ values of quality, community and sustainability—a community grocery for the future. In 1975, the group found a building for lease on the corner of Lamar and 29th, and the community-owned Wheatsville Co-op opened its doors.

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(Above): 1981 reopening celebration at Guadalupe location.

 

Underfunded in the beginning, the store was originally staffed by volunteers (called “turnups” because they simply “turned up” to work) who stocked the shelves, unloaded deliveries, bagged groceries, did construction and mopped the floors. The store was barely able to survive this rocky financial start. But even without deep financial resources, the community continually kept an eye on creating a bigger and better neighborhood store with a deli and a wider array of products on the shelves. Just five years after opening, the store saw an opportunity to realize the next phase of growth as the Kash-Karry grocery on Guadalupe was going out of business, leaving behind a larger space. Wheatsville moved in.

Financially, times continued to be tough, but the management board took the leap and community members again pitched in to gut and remodel the new store. With the new real estate came an effort to run the co-op in a more professional and organized manner—hiring staff, ending a dependence on volunteer turnups and creating strategic plans for growth and profitability. Unfortunately, labor and operating costs and debt weighed heavily on the store’s resources. But the community persevered. Dedicated and determined staff members volunteered hundreds of work hours; a new management team came on board; sales grew exponentially; it looked like the tide might be turning. General Manager Dan Gillotte says that during this period, Wheatsville was becoming the “little food co-op that just, maybe, could.”

Then, in 1995, less than one mile from Wheatsville, H-E-B opened the gleaming, glittering, gourmet emporium Central Market and sales at the co-op began to free-fall. Management did what they could to create an imperative to the co-op’s members to save the communal grocery, and sales again began to climb slowly back up.

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(Above): 1970s checkout at the 29th Street location.

Three years later, the board hired Gillotte as general manager. His tenure has witnessed steadily climbing sales and a deep commitment to a vision and message that allows Wheatsville to stand up against the other big groceries in town—carving out a significant niche. “We decided we might not be the biggest or the fanciest, but we were going to be the friendliest store in town,” Gillotte says proudly. Visits to the store’s Yelp listing bear this out—just about every review mentions the friendly, engaged and helpful staff. Gillotte cites the core principals of the co-op model as the foundation that allows this friendly vibe to flourish. “We are truly a part of our community—everyone is invested in our success and vice versa,” he says. “The downside of the investor-owned business is that really only a few people benefit from its success. At Wheatsville, we all benefit: the staff, the management team, the owners and shoppers and the community.” Gillotte loves the fact that the co-op grocery is, by its nature, hyperlocal. “We’ve always bought from local farms and carried local products,” he says. “It’s not a fad; it’s who we are, because we’re invested in this community.”

Gillotte set out to study what other successful, thriving co-ops were doing right. He became a member of the National Cooperative Grocers Association and started learning from the group’s members. He brought great improvements in customer service, merchandising, product selection and labor efficiency. He works hard and is passionate about what makes the co-op model work. “We have an inborn, fundamental need to serve our customers, because they are our owners,” he says. “This gives us all the benefits of a mom-and-pop business, but with the strength for longevity. We don’t have to worry about what might happen to the business when mom and pop retire or die, because we’re owned by a community.” There are other benefits as well. “Being owned by a community means that we are compelled to stay true to our community values,” Gillotte continues, “which are not dictated by Wall Street. Wall Street demands continual returns, but we have the flexibility to reinvest in what matters to us. We think about the next thirty years, not just the next quarter.”

What’s next for Wheatsville? The store’s underlying mission is to create good in the world, and the board and owners have come to believe in recent years that multiple stores will amplify the positive impact in our community. The second store is slated to open in July of this year, stocked with all of the local, healthy, natural and delicious products customers have come to expect from the original. Staying true to its roots, but with an eye on the future, Wheatsville is creating a legacy that’s rich in history—a living testament to the way we care about food and each other.

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(Above): Checkout at today’s Guadalupe store.