The biggest Austin food stories of 2021
As remembered by someone who is trying very hard to stop keeping track of these things.
We’re at the end of another long year that felt both too short and incredibly tedious.
As COVID cases are exploding and we’re all reconsidering every plan we’ve made for the next month, I’m sitting at my laptop, reflecting on the many ups and downs of the past 12 months.
On Jan. 6, I remember thinking, “This is going to be one helluva year.”
On Feb. 16: “I hope I don’t freeze to death.”
Feb. 24: “Holy s%@&, we won the union vote.”
June 1: “Did I really just quit my job?”
My year is split into a clear “before” and “after,” but this isn’t a newsletter about how much I loved writing my column at the newspaper, and how sad I was to walk away from it.
This is a post about the biggest things that happened in food this year. I used to dread writing this annual year-end round-up because it always came after I’d been absolutely slogged writing the Halloween-through-New Years food sections. (So. Many. Food. Sections.)
But because I made a professional pivot, I’m not coasting on fumes into the new year. I worked hard this fall on all kinds of other projects and stories, but I wasn’t writing 5,000 words a week, which means I still have a few words left in me. I still have story ideas that I didn’t get to. I still have thoughts I haven’t already shared via text, audio and video (because newsroom-based journalists have to do all three, every day, all day).
So, as the year was coming to an end, I thought back on all the food-related stories and news of the past year. What happened this year that we’ll want to remember in years to come? That’s how I approached this list. (It’s also why I’m making this post free, so it’s more easily Google-able. Click here if you want to become a Substack subscriber and support my work!)
I haven’t ranked them because I would rather point out the themes I see when I look at all of them together: mutual aid, creating new opportunities in the face of loss/change, working together to iterate and innovate, holding people and businesses accountable in productive ways, honoring what came before and what’s to come.
I hope you’ll join me in 2022 as I continue to write about Austin, Austin food and the life of this Austinite via The Feminist Kitchen on Substack.
Johnson’s Backyard Garden’s abrupt closure in August left many in the food community scratching their heads and many longtime customers scrambling to fulfill the vegetable distribution gap. JBG, as it was widely known, was one of the largest organic CSA-based vegetable farms in the state, if not the country. National media outlets were looking into the story, but four months later, little is known about what happened or what’s ahead.
Minimum wage went up, not because politicians voted for it, but because a pandemic-overwhelmed workforce finally had the upper hand in this game of economic poker. Across the service industry, employers raised starting wages to $17 or even $22 an hour to try to mitigate staffing problems brought on by a deluge of forces, only some of which had to do with the pandemic. We also saw a continued interest in organizing, including the first Starbucks union. Locally, we saw a worker-led strike at Juiceland to protest managerial mistreatment.
The winter storm sent us into pantry panic, again. A year after the pandemic revealed just how fragile our food system is, a walloping winter store knocked our energy grid to its knees. Millions of us didn’t have power or water (or both) for days, which caused another rush on grocery supplies once stores reopened. I “shopped” from an emergency food delivery for the first time in my life. Austinites (again) offered help via a growing mutual aid network, including Austin Mutual Aid, the Texas Farmer Winter Storm Relief fund and Austin Winter Storm Relief, a relief fund organized by four food and beverage hospitality mavens.
SKU adds diversity-focused food incubator, expands to Atlanta. Austin is home to SKU, one of the top food accelerators in the country, which last year expanded to Dallas. Earlier this year, SKU launched M/O, an entrepreneurial fellowship program for minority-owned businesses. In 2021, SKU announced its second expansion outside Austin, to Atlanta, in 2022.
PrepATX opened the largest ghost kitchen in the state, a 55,000-square foot facility with 42 private kitchens, 16 shared kitchens and space for 16 food trucks, according to Community Impact. This kitchen joins Cook’s Nook, Capital Kitchens, Wingman Kitchens, Ghostline Kitchen and Kitchen United Mix.
H-E-B opens new Oak Hill store, revives plans to demolish iconic SoCo store. After a couple of gangbuster years, H-E-B only opened one new Austin-area store in 2021, a 90,000-square foot store in Oak Hill. This store is less than a mile from a previous H-E-B store known as the home of Ophie Garcia, the recently retired Austinite who had the distinction of being the longest-serving H-E-B employee.
Meanwhile, on SoCo….the pandemic hit in 2020 just weeks before the planned closure of a 60-year-old location at South Congress and Oltorf Street in South Austin, so officials put the construction plans on hold to deal with the surge of customers and COVID safety protocols. Now, almost two years into the pandemic, H-E-B says construction plans will go forward for the two-story, 145,000-square foot shopping destination that will include eateries and a space for live music. The new closure date is February 2022, with a temporary store opening across the street the same month.
Randalls closed two Austin locations, one near Circle C and another in Central Austin. A third Randalls closed in 2019 and is under construction to become a new H-E-B, which will open next year.
Tiff's Treats became one of the biggest food brands in Austin. Let’s face it: Tiff’s Treats was already booming, but in 2021, the cookie delivery company raised even more capital and expanded to enough stores to officially hit the $500 million mark. Torchy’s Tacos opened its 100th store in South Austin this month, and Philip Speer’s Assembly Kitchen snagged $1.75 million in investment to expand their meal kit cooking company.
Food festivals are back! The Austin Food & Wine Festival returned this fall after a yearlong hiatus due to COVID-19, but the only food event I went to this year was the Field Guide Festival, a new event from Urban American Farmer founder Trisha Bates, who teamed up with C3 veteran Lindsey Sokol to host this conversation- and community-forward event at Fiesta Gardens in October.
Restaurants opened, restaurants closed. I haven’t been keeping super close track of openings/closings, so hopefully my former colleague Matthew Odam will do an end-of-year round-up, but I do remember that Chez Nous closed and Olamaie’s dining room opened. And Tavel Bristol-Joseph’s Canje opened to rave reviews. For a few months there, it seemed like Bad Larry Burger pop-up and MrBeast Burger, a pop-up from an internet personality who goes by MrBeast, were the hottest culinary tickets in town.
I wasn’t the only person to leave a big food job this year. Anneliese Tanner, who helmed AISD’s food services department, left this spring, and the Central Texas Food Bank is looking for a new CEO after Derrick Chubbs announced his departure this fall. At the Austin Chronicle, Jessie Cape left in August, and the alt weekly recently announced that Melanie Haupt will be taking her place. (That’s Dr. Melanie Haupt! Melanie is an Austin food history expert who has longed freelance for the Chronicle.)
We said farewell to several notable Austin food figures, including John Mueller, the grisly favorite uncle of Austin barbecue, Jeffrey’s founder Jeffrey Weinberger and Kevin Williamson, Ranch 616 founder and ranch water OG.
Tomorrow, I’ll round up the biggest Feminist Kitchen posts of the year!