Trader Joe’s, Wheatsville openings tell a tale of two Austins
I just returned from two of the biggest grocery store openings in recent memory. (For a peek inside both stores, check out these Instagram videos of Wheatsville and Trader Joe’s just minutes after each opened.)
Wheatsville Food Co-op, which after 37 years of operation near the University of Texas remains the state’s only retail food cooperative, opened first at 4001 S. Lamar Blvd. This is the store’s long-awaited second location, which has been decades in the making.
The store boasts more than 13,000 owners, who 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. The majority of the produce, sometimes as much as 90 percent, is organic, and much of it comes from local farms. The meat and seafood have to meet sustainability standards, and the stores features one of the biggest selection of raw, vegan and gluten-free products in Austin. With more than 1,000 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.
It’s the kind of place that embraces transparency, even sharing financial records that most Americans wouldn’t reveal to their own neighbors.
At the opening ceremony today, general manager Dan Gillotte talked about how co-op values help build a community and support social and environmental justice, and after his speech, I interviewed Jody Zemel, who has been a co-op member since 1987. Zemel, who since the early 1990s has driven from South Austin to the co-op near campus, was brought to tears talking about what it means to shop at a place so committed to supporting local farmers and entrepreneurs.
“(The store) embodies the principles that I try to live by,” she says. “It really makes my life better because every day, people spend money and are supporting other people who are doing the right thing. 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.”
I missed the ribbon-cutting over at the Rollingwood Trader Joe’s, the first Austin-area location of the California-based chain, but by the time I got there around 8:30 a.m., I didn’t see anyone shedding any tears. However, what I did see was amazing, just in a different way.
With hardly any parking spots or grocery carts to spare, the store was packed shoulder to shoulder with eager customers who didn’t mind spending 15 to 20 minutes in a check-out line that wrapped around the perimeter of the store.
Liana Tomchesson, who got the last of the hundreds of Hawaiian leis that employees were handing out, was so excited to be there that she asked one of the store members to take a photo of her with her phone.
“We’ve been visiting Trader Joe’s for a long time,” she says, so the big turnout wasn’t a surprise. Like many customers there today, Tomchesson said that it was the quality, price and variety of products that make her excited about the store finally opening in the Austin area. “Consumers are more savvy now,” she says. The basic supermarket goods and brands that have been on store shelves for decades aren’t always going to cut it, and stores like Whole Foods could learn a lesson from Trader Joe’s about increasing the number of private label products on shelves.
But will Trader Joe’s be able to provide a place for one-stop shopping? Tomchesson says she isn’t sure yet, adding that she’s also a Wheatsville Co-op member and looking forward to the new store near her home in South Austin.
Mother-daughter duo Ramsay Mudgett and Trish Scogin were perfectly happy to wait in that long check-out line because it’s better than driving to Plano or San Antonio, where Scogins trekked for their respective grand openings, or flying to Cleveland, where she used to visit family and would ship back a box of Trader Joe’s products they couldn’t live without, including mayonnaise. “The prices are affordable, the quality is outstanding and the selection is excellent,” Scogin says. “And the service is outstanding,” her mother adds, pointing in the direction of the many smiling employees who were guiding customers toward the cash registers.
But Trader Joe’s, which exudes a hippie vibe but without the hippie ethos of a store like Wheatsville, won’t replace shopping trips to other stores altogether, they both said. Mudgett: “There’s room for everybody because (all the stores) are extremely different.”
From my perspective, the opening of these two stores on the same day represents two different but sometimes overlapping versions of our city: the Keep Austin Weird-loving town that insists on living by its egalitarian, if idealistic principles, and the CaliforniAustin 2.0, in which the economy is based on individual creativity but also assuredly capitalistic values.
Many of us find ourselves with a foot in both camps, trying to embrace growth and change while lugging around — in a reusable bag, perhaps — the contradictions that come with having it both ways.