Let’s pretend you’re teleported from some other place directly to the heart of downtown San Antonio. What would you find if you looked around? Friendly folks, lots of tourists, and a relatively flat geographical profile making it easy to get around on foot or on wheels – an ideal place to live. But what you wouldn’t find is this: a grocery store. At least not yet.
True, there are plenty of places to eat here and are small convenience stores around; a Walgreens that sells milk, the occasional farmer’s market – but there’s not a full scale, big-box go-to when it comes to getting all your shopping done in one place. Perhaps that’s a good thing, perhaps not.
One things for sure, with the city offering a $1 million grant and other incentives for a downtown grocery store, expect that to change.
Among the four entities competing for the package (along with HEB, and the Sheraton Gunter Hotel) are two locals whose ideas and proposals may just shake things up.
Joey Villarreal owns and operates the Blue Star Brewing Company. Josh Levine is the founder of MBS (Mind, Body and Soul), a lifestyle company with training studios in Alamo Heights and King William (where, I should note, that I also work as a personal trainer). Both have experience with food related businesses, but neither has operated a large, full-scale grocery store. So, what’s their interest in the project, and what are their ideas?
“For me it’s something that goes all the way back to childhood,” says Villarreal, whose family has a history of owning and operating a variety of businesses. “I remember my mom getting on my case about what I ate, so I think it would be great to be part of the movement toward better food choices… We want to do locally based meats and vegetables, and ultimately provide the customers with food they can trust.
“Having a restaurant means being exposed to lots of different food and ingredients which will help when running a market,” he says. “So, there may be a little bit of a transition, but it’s something I have a passion for.”
While the idea of a downtown grocery store is nothing new, it’s something that has yet to be executed at full scale.
“At this point in time, the demographics aren’t yet there to support a big market,” says Villarreal. “If a large scale grocer saw that there was a need and that they could make money, they would have done it a long time ago. So, for now, there’s a need for small markets. And on that level, we can work closely with area farmers, and create something unique that people will gravitate toward… For me, it’s a risk worth taking.”
Villarreal’s plan is to start with a 2,400 square-foot store adjacent to the brewery. “The city is wanting a larger scale project, but I think we can create a really great niche market here and make it a destination for folks from all around.”
The good news is that regardless of whether he gets the nod, Villarreal plans to move forward with his plan, so we’re likely to see a Blue Star grocery store some time in the near future.
“The project has been a learning process, and something we’ve devoted a lot of time and energy and resources to already,” he says. “So this is something we want to do, and we want to do it right.”
Even better, a Blue Star grocery store could develop into something more ambitious. “My intention is to do one for now,” says Villarreal. “After that, we’ll see and go from there.”
For Levine, interest in the project stemmed from demand. “People I know who live in Lavaca, and King William, and other areas have been clamoring for this for a while, and I noticed there were not a lot of healthy options out there. So that, along with the city’s incentive, made it interesting and something I wanted to pursue.”
Last year, Levine opened Uncommon Fare, a 1,000 sq. ft. general store with groceries, prepared foods and local produce. He says the project has been well received, but they’re still working on connecting even more with the community. His vision is to open several smaller stores across the city.
“When I researched the idea, I realized the city is divided into several sectors,” he says. “And it seemed like it would be much more effective to have a smaller store in each area. So, my idea is to have six stores of 3-5,000 sq. ft. in each of those pockets of the city – River North, Dignowity Hill, City Center, River South, Lavaca, and the Westside.”
If Levine were to receive the grant, his first move would be purchasing property on the Westside and establishing a headquarters, which would include a full kitchen and prep area, an urban garden, and neighborhood education elements as well. From there he would begin to launch each store in his master plan.
“There’s enough of a demand in those areas now, even without the incentives,” says Levine. And because of that, he too, is already at work on a neighborhood market at 1221 Broadway, which he hopes to officially open in January of 2014.
With his health and wellness background, Levine hopes to offer a slightly different take on your typical grocery store. “We’re definitely going to draw a line with regard to the types of food we sell and carry,” says Levine. “We’re going to have as much organic produce as possible, eliminate some of the unhealthy, over-processed elements, and overall be a healthy grocery store.”
Proposals from Levine and Villarreal, along with those from other key players, are currently under review by a special committee which is expected to make recommendations to the city council by the end of summer.
In the end, it seems regardless of who lands the grant, our city will ultimately benefit, thanks to two enterprising locals who hope to bring fresh, healthy goods to a neighborhood near you.
In other news…
Speaking of markets in the downtown area, the Southtown Farmers and Ranchers Market opens today from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. at the Blue Star Arts Complex. Stop on by for local produce, grass fed beef and the like. The market is expected to run year round, rain or shine.
And if it’s not too late, you may still have time to join in on SicloVerde, a bike tour of community gardens downtown (click here to learn more: “SicloVerde: Riding Bikes, Visiting Gardens For a Cause”).
Also, you could catch the Eastside Bike Ride this morning at 10 a.m. The group will depart from Wheatley Courts at 906 N. Mittman and head west to the San Antonio Housing Authority central office at 818 S. Flores. No website to link to here, but here’s a quick look at the course map.
Finally, if it’s bikes you dig, then you may want to stop by the Palladium IMAX on Thursday, June 27 at 7 p.m. for a special one night only screening of “Bicycle Dreams”. Tickets are $15 in advance and $20 at the door, with proceeds benefiting the Bike MS Valero Ride.
Tom Trevino is a writer, artist and wellness coach based out of San Antonio. His column, “The Feed,” covers anything and everything related to health and wellness. He holds a B.A. from the University of Texas at San Antonio, with certification and training from the Cooper Institute. He has a fondness for dogs, NPR, the New York Times, and anything on two wheels. When he’s not writing, training, or cooking, you can find him wandering the aisles of Central Market.