Tucked away on West Mary Street in the busy South Congress district, The Herb Bar is easy to pass by if you don’t know where to look. With a humble façade covered in ivy, it seems to blend into its surroundings on the residential street corner.
Upon entering, you are greeted by friendly smiles, faint chimes and the smell of incense. The shop’s shelves are stocked with curated, holistic self-care products like massage oils, handcrafted teas, tinctures, supplements, mineral baths, healing books, crystals and more.
Twila Willis has owned and operated The Herb Bar since 1995, taking over from its original owner, who started the business in 1986. One can only imagine the changes this Austin staple has witnessed — a humble constant in the middle of an ever-changing city.
Willis remarks on how the city of Austin has made her story possible and why she chose to start a business here. When she came here in 1995, Austin was one of the healthiest cities to live in and one of the best places to own and operate a small business. “Independent business,” she corrects, because, “there’s nothing small about it!” Though she does lament some of the changes, like insufficient parking and box stores pushing locally owned businesses to the outskirts of town, the growth of Austin has allowed her business to thrive and expand from one part-time employee to eight.
Willis adds that what makes Austin so appealing is the plentiful access to nature right here in the city. One of Willis’ most common prescriptions is to send people to Barton Springs, to “put your feet in that cool water and surround yourself with nature.”
Willis traces her fondness for the outdoors — and the physical and spiritual nourishment it can provide — back to summers she spent on her grandmother's farm as a child. “I began to notice that eating food from her garden shifted my perspective and mood,” says Willis. She learned from an early age to treat food as medicine, noticing that thoughtfully prepared foods tended to make her feel better.
After graduating from the University of Arizona, Willis set out for Seattle, where she worked in the restaurant industry, always seeking out restaurants that prepared homemade, fresh food. After some years in Seattle, Willis landed in Austin, and the opportunity to purchase The Herb Bar presented itself. She trusted her instincts and hasn’t looked back.
Since then, her life has been a continuous pursuit of knowledge to inform and grow her business. She attended culinary school and business school and completed herbalism and nutrition studies. It seems Willis has always been developing herself to more fully contribute to her community and customers. Now, she supports and honors the same for her staff — hiring a team of nutritionists, herbalists and aromatherapists who have a deep understanding and passion for the store’s offerings. Each month, the staff are paid to complete one hour of continuing education. Willis believes the staff’s education ensures that the store’s slogan rings true: “The Herb Bar is the best place to cure what ails you.”
And it’s not just staff education The Herb Bar emphasizes. In addition to the goods they sell, The Herb Bar offers seasonal education sessions where they invite local healers to talk to the community. Weather permitting, the talks are offered in their outdoor garden among the flora and fauna. The classes are always free and “always empowering,” says Willis.
Another aspect Willis believes has helped her store continue to stand out is her focus on quality. The Herb Bar doesn't have a stock room, so “what you see on the shelves is what you get,” says Willis. They order fresh ingredients every two weeks, and she is adamant about tracing the sources of her suppliers from field to shelf to ensure everything is up to her standards.
The Herb Bar makes more than 200 products in-house, including teas, mists and essential oil blends, and Willis also seeks to support independent and local makers as much as possible, representing 38 different craftsmen and craftswomen among the merchandise.
Willis remarks that the efforts have proven worthwhile. “People come back to say thank you when their broken heart has been healed, or they got off hundreds of dollars of medication after visiting us. Our staff here is kind and caring. We have everyone's highest good in our minds and hearts.”
For more information, visit theherbbar.com
by Melissa Claire / photography by Melanie Grizzel