Chances are good that most readers of this page don't think much of franchised restaurants. We turn up our noses at their soulless uniformity and dreary aesthetics. The chains that license these franchises, however, couldn't care less about upscale preferences. They're too busy darting off to the bank. According to an August 2010 Business Wire article, restaurant chains report franchising to be their primary source of growth. During the worst recession in recent history, the top 400 restaurant franchisors saw their 2009 sales increase by 1.6 percent. The franchise, if these numbers mean much, simply makes good business sense.
Proof dots the American landscape. Virtually every one of the 400 franchises mentioned in Business Wire can be seen from the I-35 corridor running through my hometown of Austin, Texas. As with any strip of highway bisecting any big city, its frontage roads are lined with McDonald's, Subways, Starbuckses, Pizza Huts, Cracker Barrels, IHOPs, and, naturally, Longhorn Steakhouses. The effect, if not numbing, is hardly a source of pride for a city whose paean to local businesses is encapsulated in its ubiquitous mantra: Keep Austin Weird.
But weirdness doesn't go gently in Austin, even along the I-35 corridor. Indeed, situated on the western access road between Exits 232 and 233 is a diamond in the rough called the Whip In. The Whip In, which for over 20 years served as a convenience store with a notable beer selection, has recently evolved into an unlikely locavore sweet spot. It's there where you can now find some of the best Indian food in the city, dozens of taps of the country's highest quality microbrews, a broad selection of artisanal products, a nascent beer garden, and a postage-stamp stage showcasing the city's unparalleled musical talent. A recent Whip In visit involved picking up a bag of vegan tamales, spontaneously deciding to have a pint of the local 512 IPA, listening to James McMurtry sing a backwoods ballad called Choctaw Bingo live, and then having another IPA, this time with a bowl of curried eggplant. Not your average trip to the grocery store.
For Topiwala, the Whip In has become more of an ideological, or even spiritual, extension of his deepest values than a conventional business enterprise.
The main source of the Whip In's wonderful weirdness is Dipak Topiwala. After living in the Bay Area for 11 years (he was an anthropology major at SF State), Dipak returned to Austin with his wife, Arden, and young daughter to help his father, Amrit, who opened the convenience store back in 1986. For Topiwala, the Whip In has become more of an ideological, or even spiritual, extension of his deepest values than a conventional business enterprise. "I have an old-school way of thinking," he explained, attributing this perspective to the influence of his father. "You can't [dump] on your employees and producers. They deserve to get what they're due."
Topiwala actively cultivates personal ties with his suppliers, to whom he's happy to pay a premium for the value they add to their ingredients. Dairy comes from Water Oak Farms, a goat farm outside Houston, or from White Mountain Foods (all organic). Beef comes from the Bastrop Cattle Company, a grass-fed operation located down the road. Lamb—an exceedingly popular ingredient in the Whip In's repertoire—is sourced from Loncito Cartwright, who runs a 600-head sheep farm in Dinero, Texas. Topiwala's vegetables are delivered by Farm to Table, an Austin company that distributes produce from 15 local farms, or through Segovia Produce, which sources as much local produce as it can. Mushrooms come from Kitchen Pride, a mushroom farm in Gonzales. So loyal is Topiwala to his array of suppliers that when Sysco showed up promising to cut the Whip In's costs, it was quickly shown the door. "You're not going to beat quality," explains Topiwala, as he prepares to drill holes for a new row of microbrew taps.
What Topiwala is really getting at is something more fundamental than a generic endorsement of high-quality ingredients. Family is central to the Whip In ethos. "Parenthood changes you," Tapiwala observes, "and with the exception of the beer (for now anyway), everything in here should be healthy for my daughter." Plus, given that all the recipes—including the naan bread—come from his mother's kitchen, it's no wonder that the Whip In vigilantly seeks out the finest ingredients. "We know what we like," Topiwala explains, "so we'll make what we like."
For Topiwala, the Whip In exists as a brick-and-mortar testament to culinary sustainability, one that stands in defiance of what he calls the "CEO reality." It's a reality that says "grow, get rich, buy an island in the Caribbean, and grow some more." Topiwala wants none of it. The idea of a Whip In franchise appalls him ('I can't be in two places at once") and, he wonders, isn't it the CEO reality that's "destroying the middle class in this country"? To be sure, Topiwala's perspective is refreshing, if only because if every restaurant owner genuinely shared it, rather than simply giving it lip service, it would radically improve the way Americans eat.
Listening to Topiwala discuss his admirable business philosophy, one can't help but wonder: What's the catch? I mean, isn't there a cost to putting such noble ideals into practice? Sure enough, there is: money. "We're not getting rich," explains Topiwala. "And we're never going to get rich at this." Topiwala is perfectly content with this reality. "Everyone wants a mansion," he says, "when all you need is a house."
Herein lies both the ultimate challenge and inspiration behind our nation's gradual transition to local food economies. As this humble spot off the highway proves, it's a movement that, in every way, cuts against the grain of "CEO reality." It thumbs its nose at a centuries-old business philosophy based on incessant growth, ongoing expansion, and profit margins that must trend skyward. It's the polar opposite of the franchise mentality. The cost, however, is nothing less than a fundamentally altered (dare one say "un-American") way of looking at consumption, success, and luxury. As Topiwala and thousands of others see it: "The only way to achieve this is not to sell out." Whether this attitude is sustainable will be for the future to decide.