By Claire Cella
Photography by Andy Sams
Allen Rogers might not admit it yet, but his Rosewood Community Market is a valiant endeavor in preservation. Not the kind that involves storing away old photographs or rare manuscripts, though. What he’s salvaging are the foodways of Austin; the ways that food has interacted with this city’s culture and history.
The market—situated on the corner of Chicon Street and Rosewood Avenue—offers much more than simply the specific grassfed heritage meats that are written on the chalkboard or the organic heirloom vegetables that line the farm table in the center of the store’s single room. It’s a place where the local community can find essential provisions and an appreciation for today’s local farmers and artisans, but also remain connected to the legacy of community stores and neighborhood grocers in Austin.
Rosewood Community Market resembles the foodways of Austin society in the early 19th and 20th centuries. Take, for instance, the Austin City Directory of 1908, which lists seven grocers within a few-block radius of that very same corner. Most of them were small, privately owned stores, listed not as recognizable franchises, but simply by the name of the owner. Fast-forward to 1940, and still more grocers and markets abounded. In 1970, there was even a grocery, Stark Willie’s, located just a few doors down from where Rogers’s market currently sits. What’s more is that these grocers were usually stocked with locally sourced goods to help sustain the community’s daily dietary needs, just like Rosewood.
Unfortunately, since the late 1980s, the grocery food options—natural, unpackaged and non-fried options, at least—on the East Side have diminished. In fact, one prominent reason Rogers and his co-manager, Elizabeth Nowrouz, started Rosewood in that location was because the neighborhood that it serves was considered a “food desert,” according to the USDA, or an urban neighborhood “without ready access to fresh, healthy and affordable food.” In these areas, “at least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of the census tract’s population must reside more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store,” notes the USDA. That means in East Austin’s recent history, one of the foodways has shut down, and Rogers is out to change that.
Rogers and Nowrouz received support to open Rosewood from PeopleFund—a community development financial institution—because of the market’s prospective power to become a sustaining food hub for the local community, and provide both food access and food security where there were none. Although Rogers knew opening the store wasn’t going to be easy, there have been daily challenges. “We’re still obscure,” he says. “And there’s no other commerce on this corner to speak of. We’re off the beaten path a little bit.”
But he’s quick to mention that the anonymity and isolation are also significant justification for why the market is there in the first place. “We’re embedded in this neighborhood,” he says. “And we’re trying to show that little markets like this can support neighborhoods and become a part of daily life. Our goal is to supply anything you need to make a meal that day of that week.”
Of course many of the market’s offerings—which include local delights like goat chops from Windy Hill Farm, Johnson’s Backyard Garden kale and Mill-King Market & Creamery milk—are already healthier and fresher than the products at the big-box grocer, and the market is closer and more convenient. Sometimes, items at Rosewood can even be the same price, if not cheaper than, those at larger grocers. “There can be this stigma around micro-groceries that you have to pay more,” Rogers says. “But that’s the opposite of what we want to achieve. We want it to be as affordable as possible.”
Rogers says he and Nowrouz make an effort to work with customers to make items affordable. On top of accepting SNAP and Lone Star Card, Rogers is often known to take 10 percent off the top of sales. “It’s about a state of mind,” he says. “How we consume; how we interact. Everything about this place was chosen with that thoughtfulness: that we want to react to our environment and think about what we’re consuming. It’s meant to be a safe space for people, and anyone who walks in the door can see that immediately.”
Rogers realizes that change can take time, of course. But right now, he’s focused on the positive developments within the past few months. Rosewood has joined, and now contributes to, CitySprout—a Web-based exchange site that brings local farm produce and products to businesses and neighborhoods. The market has also opened up its commercial kitchen space for rent on Mondays and Tuesdays to host educational cooking programs, and Rogers and Nowrouz are starting to experiment with the possibility of turning Rosewood into a co-op. “We used to exist in small, local communities before the industrial food complex,” he says. “It’s simply that this is a choice now; Rosewood Community Market is an option. Hopefully, more people will decide that this is the thing they want to support. You can effect real change in a person’s life in a small way by doing a small thing,” Rogers says, “and that’s a pretty big deal.”
For more information, visit rosewoodfood.com