At first drive-by, you might think The Wheel is a bike shop. Or, upon hearing the name, surmise that it’s a country western themed franchise.
However, when you actually stop to walk inside this new eastside neighborhood bar, what you find is a shot of “Cheers” camaraderie served in the aura of Breaking Away, with just a touch of Grateful Dead chill.
Owned and Centered in Austin
On a recent sunny afternoon, general manager Ayron Vandergriff readied The Wheel for its daily 4 PM opening while owner Max Moreland sat at the bar, his office.
“I love how friendly and accessible this area is,” said Moreland. “It’s what I love about Austin in general, how welcoming it is.” Moreland is the managing partner of a group of several local owners that includes Matt Luckie, Anggay Tenney and Jack Murray.
Moreland, Luckie and Tenney are also partners in several other establishments (Mean Eyed Cat, Gibson Street Bar, Lavaca Street Bar). Murray is a well-known figure in Austin’s cycling community, as an athlete, coach and businessman (Jack & Adam’s Bicycles, High Five Events).
The group chose to renovate space in the corner strip center located at 1900 E MLK Jr Blvd and Chicon. It’s small; the interior features a walk-up bar along with a smattering of tall tables. This being Austin, however, everyone will want to be outside anyway.
The adjoining patio, part of a cinderblock and wood fenced enclosure, includes picnic tables set on crushed granite for communal imbibing. A large tree provides shade, and plans are in the works for vines to cover the fence. A wall-long fountain, inspired by New Orleans’ beer bar The Bulldog, gushes water from various bar pulls.
Though open until 2 AM, there’s no live music as a thoughtful nod to the proximity of homes. “We want to cater to neighbors,” Moreland explained. The staff of five is intent on getting to know patrons through close interaction.
“We don’t have any heels in the ground,” he went on to say. “Though we’re more of a beer and whiskey bar, we’ll let the clientele dictate. We leave room on the shelves to add. If you’re somebody who comes in three days a week and ask for a product we don’t carry, we’ll have it for you tomorrow.”
Working in Tandem with the ‘Hood
Moreland and Vandergriff have made a working partnership with neighbors a priority. The goal is to provide an inviting setting that reflects their community.
“When we first signed the lease, one of the first things Ayron and I did was sit down to have a couple of beers with Austin Daily Press (ADP) for ways that we could make this mutually beneficial for everybody,” Moreland recalled. ADP, a specialty sandwich shop, shares the parking lot with The Wheel, newcomer JuiceLand and longstanding laundromat Kleen Wash No. 2. While The Wheel doesn’t offer food, patrons are welcome to bring in orders from ADP.
“We’re both working in small, unconventional spaces,” said ADP chef and manager Reed Faitak, “but we’re still providing thoughtful, high-quality service with carefully crafted products that speak to the needs of our neighborhood.” In addition to the April special, Faitak is rolling out a burger menu that “knowing the crowd next door at The Wheel, we’re sure [will] take off big time.”
While interplay between the other businesses isn’t as direct, it does exist. “We have a decent amount of people who finish their laundry, put it in the car, and then stop in for a beer,” Moreland said.
What Moreland and Vandergriff hope to encourage is walk-in traffic. The Wheel wants to be a rest on the way home from work, a pause on an evening stroll. And, yes, a pit stop on the ride. Vandergriff, who rides to work every day, parks his bike at the rack next to the self-service station in front. There are tools and air for cyclists in need, though not, as some had reported earlier, “onsite bike tune-ups” in the bar.
Whiskey of the Day
Though it might seem the cycling aspect drove the name choice, it was the Grateful Dead song “The Wheel” that actually provided inspiration. Once christened, the bar decor evolved from some Google searches that “dumb lucked” into the vintage feel and cycling photographs. But the aspect that really gives The Wheel its vibe is the whiskey of the day.
Yes, there are craft cocktails (named after daughters, created over some late night “drink building” sessions), an ever-rotating list of beers and local spirits, but it was passion that prompted the $4 whiskey of the day. Moreland’s goal is to “get people out of their shell” by encouraging something outside of their usual. The idea is working – it’s The Wheel’s No. 1 selling drink.
That is, it’s No. 1 until the regulars decide on something else. And whatever that might be, the folks behind The Wheel aim to adapt and keep rolling with the flow.
The wheel is turning and you can’t slow down
You can’t let go and you can’t hold on
You can’t go back and you can’t stand still
If the thunder don’t get you, the lightning will.
-The Grateful Dead
@leahruns100 wants to know:
What’s the fav bar or go-to pub in your Austin-area ‘hood?
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