Wheatsville Co-op has been serving the Austin community for 40 years and there’s a lot we can learn from their way of doing business. With a purpose statement that doesn’t once mention food, but instead reads, “to create a self-reliant, self-empowering community of people that will grow and promote a transformation of society toward cooperation, justice, and non-exploitation,” you can tell this isn’t your typical grocery store.
Over the years, Wheatsville Co-op has gone through several transformations to become a trailblazing community in the promotion of local, sustainable foods, and with their new Livable Wage and Benefits Program. I sat down with Chief Executive Grocer, Dan Gillotte, to talk about Wheatsville’s presence in Austin.
What Is a Co-op?
Before I can write about all the amazing things Wheatsville is doing in the Austin community, I must address the elephant in the room: what is a co-op? It’s probably the most misunderstood business model, not because it’s particularly difficult to understand, but because there are so many types of co-ops, which is short for cooperative.
Consumer co-ops, such as Wheatsville, are owned, governed and used by the same people. The customers become the owners and vote to make decisions that will affect the entire business. The organization exists to serve the users, who also happen to be the owners. It’s that simple: people working together to build a business that focuses on their wants and needs.
Under this model, Wheatsville can be more flexible when it comes to which products they carry by developing strong relationships with local vendors and farms.
40 Years in Austin
In 1976, a small group of people with the common interest to bring local, sustainable food to Austin worked together to open a grocery store. Within four short years, they outgrew their original location at 29th Street and Lamar Boulevard and moved to their current flagship on Guadalupe Street.
Those initial years weren’t easy, especially since Wheatsville was competing with local stores such as Whole Foods and Central Market. But instead of staying a failing course, Wheatsville did what Austin does best: they changed. In true co-op fashion, they were able to take a look at themselves and transform into a business they could be proud to own, and that others would want to be part of.
In 1998, Dan Gillotte joined the Wheatsville team as Chief Executive Grocer. Across 18 years, he has launched the store to a new level, along with the staff and board which oversees the business. The store on Guadalupe Street was remodeled in 2009 to have its current updated look. And after much research, the team opened a second location on South Lamar Boulevard in 2013.
Today both stores boast a robust produce section with locally-sourced foods, a sustainable seafood section, a delicious deli counter, a growing catering division and more.
Impacting the Austin Community and Staff
The customer is always right, but when the customer is the owner, does that change the way a business does things? Most customers are price conscious, but Wheatsville owners also tend to be socially conscious. After several owner surveys, it became apparent that Wheatsville had to work on a plan to not only keep food prices down, but also raise wages to keep up with Austin’s cost of living.
What most people don’t realize is how difficult that task truly is: to increase wages for hourly staff by $2, without increasing the cost of products (and actually lowering the costs), all while earning enough to pay rent and utilities. Gillotte explained that it took almost two years to solve this complex problem and assure its sustainability. He was determined to make it work. In his eyes, it was no longer a personnel issue; it was an ethical issue. And Wheatsville did it! They launched the Livable Wage and Benefits Plan in January 2016, despite having a net loss in revenue last year. Fortunately, the program has been a huge success and they’ve already seen a decrease in turnover rates.
But the work isn’t over yet. The business is now tackling the issue of wage compression caused by the new program. “It’s not an easy thing to do,” says Gillotte, “but it’s the right thing to do.” Since the launch of the initiative, Wheatsville has also partnered with city council to combat income inequality by helping other Austin businesses who are also trying to find sustainable ways to raise wages.
How to Become an Owner at Wheatsville Co-op?
The mission at Wheatsville is “…to serve a broad range of people by providing them goods and services, using efficient methods that avoid manipulation of the consumers, and minimize exploitation of the producers or damage to the environment. The primary focus for this mission is supplying high-quality food and non-doctrinaire information about food to people in Austin, Texas.” While it is not necessary to be a co-op member to shop at Wheatsville, if that mission statement speaks to you, then you might want to consider becoming an owner.
By becoming a part owner, you become eligible to vote in annual elections, run for a seat on the board of directors, receive sales on specific goods, participate in owner-appreciation sales and receive a patronage rebate in sufficiently profitable years. It’s also not unheard of for an owner to make a suggestion for a particular product and for it to appear on the shelves shortly thereafter. You can become an owner of Wheatsville with a one-time investment of $70 (per person).
Today, Wheatsville is owned by more than 20,000 people and each owner has a different level of involvement. Some owners shop daily; some bring co-workers for lunch; others serve on the board or work on community projects. Gillotte wants everyone to feel welcome. “We don’t treat non-owners any differently when the come into the store, but I just love it when customers are owners.”
Whether you’re new to Austin or have been here your whole life, if you haven’t made it to your local Wheatsville Co-op yet, then check it out for yourself. Here’s to 40 years in Austin. Best wishes for 40 more.
@jpino9 wants to know:
Are you a member of a co-op in Austin?