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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

Austin's Wheatsville Co-op Rocks!

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GEO Original
June 17, 2014
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My co-op rocks! You want some proof? We even have a dinosaur on our roof!

Shane Shelton says so much about the culture of Wheatsville Co-op with his line from the co-op’s entry in the My Co-op Rocks video contest. The employees at Wheatsville follow some simple principles: play, be there, make their day, and choose your attitude. Living by these principles and loving what they do, the employees of Wheatsville create the friendly atmosphere that greets member-owners and customers when they enter the grocery store. You can tell that the people working at Wheatsville enjoy their jobs, and as an owner, that makes you proud to be a part of the co-op.

So what about that dinosaur on the roof? Dan Gillotte, general manager of Wheatsville, is one of those people that loves his co-op and his community. When a local pizzeria, Mangia, was moving buildings a few years ago, Dan approached the owners about the “Manga-saurus” living on their roof. He knew their new location couldn’t accommodate the beast, and he also knew the local icon would be missed. Wheatsville Co-op offered to hold on to the dinosaur on their roof until he had a permanent home.

Since 1976, Wheatsville has been called “the heart of the community” for reasons just like this. The co-op is an active, positive force in the community that can be depended on to lend a helping hand. They are the only food co-op in Texas, and serve as the closest grocery store for all the students at the University of Texas at Austin. What started as a small grocery store that offered hard to find whole grains, organics and unprocessed foods is now able “to be an incubator for small food vendors, growers and ranchers” that “constantly looks for ways to help grow local, organic and sustainable food systems,” says Raquel Dadamo, Brand Manager of Wheatsville. The co-op has been successful over the years, and can now help other organizations like the Sustainable Food Center and Urban Roots that share their vision for food.

With membership soaring to over 11,000 and annual earnings reaching 17 million, 2013 was the year that Wheatsville proved their success by expanding into South Austin and taking their first step in the BIG Direction.

Wheatsville’s BIG Direction guides the board of directors, employees, and members to co-op greatness. The BIG direction began years ago when the management and board of directors worked together to articulate the end goals of Wheatsville food co-op. They came up with three goals for the co-op: for Wheatsville to be at the forefront of transforming society through kindness, generosity and hospitality, to create a robust cooperative economy, and provide people with easy access to healthy, sustainable food solutions. In order for members, employees and the general public to understand and measure these goals, the BIG Direction was born. This plan has three goals, or outcomes, and aims to marry the end goals with the day to day operations of the co-op.

Wheatsville Co-op’s BIG direction is based on achieving excellence in their work as grocers and expanding their cooperative capacity through physical expansion of store locations. By opening more stores, Wheatsville can achieve the three goals of the BIG direction.

The first outcome of the plan is more local, sustainable food. Right now, Wheatsville supports over 150 local farmers and producers, but will be able to substantially increase those numbers with each new store added. Wheatsville hopes to expand the amount of local, organic food that is available to Austinites in an effort to provide them with opportunities for making the best food choices for themselves and their world.

The second aspect of the BIG direction is supporting the cooperative economy. As one of the larger and more public facing cooperatives in Austin, Wheatsville feels a responsibility to the cooperative community to educate their shoppers and the general public of the principles and benefits of cooperatives, as well as provide a space for cooperative connections to be made. Many people that shop at Wheatsville will be more apt to take part in other cooperatives such as housing co-ops and credits unions if they understand the cooperative business model. The new store will have end caps and signage that informs their shoppers of the benefits of the cooperative model and cooperative opportunities around town.  Wheatsville also plans to continue supporting start-up co-ops like the Red Rabbit Cooperative Bakery. Wheatsville is Red Rabbit’s biggest customer, and helped the cooperative gain recognition through prominent placement and marketing in Wheatsville’s current store. With this and future expansion, the Co-op will be able to purchase even more from Red Rabbit and other co-ops as they are born.

The third tenent of the BIG direction is creating more happy people. Currently the store has over 11,000 member-owners with 13,000 shoppers weekly. By creating more stores, Wheatsville hopes to expand its member base, service more shoppers and give even more to charitable causes. Wheatsville was voted “most friendly grocery store” in Austin, which makes Dan Gillotte feel like Wheatsville is exponentially creating more happy people in Austin. He believes if people are happy doing a mundane task like grocery shopping, they are probably spreading that happiness to others in their lives. As Wheatsville grows, so does the happiness. The expansion into South Austin will create 75-100 new jobs, which will also create more happy people. Employee satisfaction surveys show that Wheatsville employees are happy in their work and many cite the BIG direction as one of the reasons for their satisfaction at work. They are a part of something bigger than themselves and can understand how stocking onions fits into the overall goals and aspirations of the cooperative.

When asked how members and employees were engaged with the BIG direction, Dan explained that the board and management refined their ideas for the plan, and then presented the idea at an Owner’s Gathering. In addition to presenting the information at a gathering, a video of the presentation was put on the Co-op’s website, and also highlighted in the monthly newsletter, the Wheatsville Breeze. After incorporating feedback from the members, the next step was to get all of the employees excited about the BIG Direction. In an effort to connect the goals of the BIG direction with the employee’s daily tasks, Wheatsville has specific targets related to each section of the plan and uses open book accounting so employees can track their progress. Within the first month of new employment, workers take a class with Dan to learn about the BIG Direction and find out how they can get involved in the success of the cooperative. Members have been kept up to date on the progress of the BIG Direction through the newsletter, email updates and at events in the store and the community.

The first step in the BIG Direction is the expansion into South Austin. All year, the employees and members of Wheatsville were anticipating the unveiling of the new location. In line with their guiding principle of play, the management at Wheatsville planned a midnight bus ride for the employees to the new location. One bus left the store and headed North and the other headed South. They met at 4001 South Lamar, and there was joy and much celebrating.

The location in South Austin was chosen for a variety of reasons. Wheatsville customers come from all over Austin, but the requests for a South Austin location have been the most frequent and urgent. The new location will have everything the original location boasts plus more parking, more indoor seating, larger fresh foods departments and more prepared foods. They also plan to have a classroom area for training and education for members, staff, directors on the board, and the public. The new location is accessible by two bus routes, and is just a few blocks away from a USDA identified food desert where people have low access to fresh foods.

When asked how Wheatsville plans to create a cooperative culture and keep the neighborhood feel of the store during growth and expansion, Raquel says,

Each store is going to have its own unique voice and personality that is reflective of the community it serves, but there are overarching ideas that we will share and work towards. Hopefully the expansion will just mean that we become the heart of two different neighborhoods and expand a culture based on kindness. The next store, while bigger, will still be friendly, easy to shop and have great food. We’ll also have a space for classes, meetings and conversations and encourage people to become Owners and invest in the success of the store. When people are invested, they become much more involved in the daily activities, which helps create community.

The Austin community has warmly welcomed the new Wheatsville! 


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Kim Penna (2014).  Austin's Wheatsville Co-op Rocks!.  Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO).

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