On any given weekend, pedestrians can be spotted crisscrossing their way through the streets of downtown Waco. They often come for the local businesses, art scene and live events, but this hasn’t always been the case. Waco’s rapidly growing economic landscape was built on the backs of fearless entrepreneurs—individuals who recognized potential and were willing to take risks in order to bring new life to the city.
Kevin Renois, co-founder of Start Up Waco, experienced first-hand the way new business can redeem a city. While studying entrepreneurship at Baylor, he knew Waco was standing at the precipice of something big. “It’s kind of this Renaissance period,” Renois said. “We were one thing, and now we’re transitioning to becoming something else.” After graduating in 2016 and completing a one-year fellowship the following year, he returned to Waco because he recognized an opportunity to influence and contribute to the city.
Renois’ endeavors resulted in Start Up Waco, which seeks to create a culture of supportive and connected entrepreneurs. By identifying existing support systems and connecting entrepreneurs with resources and mentors, Start Up Waco works to lessen the risks associated with entrepreneurship.
“You can drive down Austin Avenue and see a bunch of unoccupied storefronts. Several people need to step up and lease space or buy something,” Renois said. As individuals begin to do just that, Renois said Waco is at a defining moment, launching into a new era.
Innovation within Tradition: Balcones Distilling
When Balcones Distilling co-founder Chip Tate launched his business 10 years ago, there were no distilleries or breweries in Waco, a city known prominently for Dr Pepper. Tate would establish soda-saturated Waco as an internationally recognized whiskey destination, creating the only American distillery to win the esteemed Best in Glass competition over industry-dominated Scotch whiskeys in 2012. Tate has since stepped out on his own and runs his own fledgling business called Tate & Co. Distillery. His influence in Waco has added its own chapter to the American tradition of whiskey.
Current Balcones Stillhouse manager Gabe RiCharde said whiskey traditions in America piqued his interest in the craft. He recounted how whiskey has been influential throughout American history, from the first legal distillery owned by George Washington to its role in western expansion. Now RiCharde contributes to American whiskey’s ongoing story as Balcones produces one of the first Texan whiskeys since Prohibition. The awards on the distillery’s wall hang as a testament to its prominence.
Tate said he believes the tradition of whiskey is not merely something of the past. In order to pass whiskey distilling on to the next generation, he keeps it alive by improving it through experimentation.
Tate’s commitment to innovation paid off as demand for Balcones’ products quickly grew. Soon after Balcones began production, the team was shipping whiskey pallets to New York, Chicago, Japan and the UK, gaining worldwide recognition.
“The people who are involved in this craft are trying to explore and trying to push boundaries,” RiCharde said. He explained that Balcones’ philosophy is to start with a well-defined process and then add his own variations.
Waco’s recognition for its whiskey has given the Balcones team a unique freedom to experiment with their craft. “It gives us a platform,” Tate said. “Most artists don’t have that privilege.”
Fresh Perspective: Harvest on 25th
In 2012, Toby Tull quit his desk job to travel the world for one year. He has been taking risks ever since. Returning to his Waco home in 2013, he brought new ideas and energy back with him. “They call it seeing white space,” Tull explained. “When you are looking at business opportunities and you see the potential of something, but nothing is currently there, it’s considered white space. I could just see it.”
Recognizing a need for healthy food options in Waco, he started working to fill it. After meeting local chef Juanita Barrientos, the two went into business together with a shared desire to produce healthy food. In 2015, they launched Happy Harvest, a kitchen that prepares nutritious meals made with locally sourced ingredients. They knew it would be risky to create this style of food in Waco, where local preference tends toward tacos and barbecue. Nonetheless, Barrientos said she wants to inspire locals to branch out of their comfort zones. “We want to meet people wherever they are in their journey, and we hope that we can make an impact in that way,” she said.
In fall of 2018, Barrientos and Tull are unveiling their most recent endeavor, Harvest on 25th, a restaurant at the intersection of Austin Avenue and 25th Street serving healthy meals with enticing flavor.
As a chef, Barrientos takes a unique approach to preparing food. She began culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu in Austin only 10 days after receiving her degree in nutrition from Texas A&M, where she was excited to combine her passion for nutrition and cooking.
Barrientos said she hopes to teach people that healthy food can be approachable. She wants to undermine any negative stigmas generally associated with healthier options. “Food should be delicious, no matter if it’s healthy or not, or vegan or gluten free,” Barrientos said. “I believe that every meal should be a tiny celebration because it’s how we nourish our bodies.”
Tull characterized himself as someone whose passions empower him to take risks. However, he said he begins all of his ventures with careful planning. Tull said they would have opened Harvest on 25th three and a half years earlier if it weren’t for his focus on building a strong audience. “Investing all this stuff into a restaurant without having a tribe already lined up makes restaurants very difficult to survive,” Tull said. “That’s why we did it a little differently. I’m OK with the risk, but I also try to mitigate risk as much as I can.”
One of Tull’s projects, the “Bucha van,” is a mobile version of his kombucha business, Bare Bucha, which he started in 2016. The van frequents Waco’s streets during the week and the Waco Downtown Farmers Market on Saturday mornings.
Initially interested in kombucha for personal health reasons, Tull wanted to make it available to others. “We believe that food and drink feeds your soul as much as it feeds your body, and so we try to do both,” Tull said.
Feeding the soul through food and drink doesn’t stop here for these entrepreneurs. This year, Barrientos brought something new to Texas when she created “art to table” dinners hosted at local art gallery Cultivate 7Twelve. For these events, each course of the four-course meal was inspired by a different work of art hanging in the gallery. The dinners provided a preview of the kinds of food Harvest on 25th would eventually bring to Waco.
On connecting art to food, Barrientos said, “It’s really dissecting the piece [of art] and creating a feeling or memory.” To demonstrate that food can be much more than ingredients on a plate, Barrientos said she hopes to nourish both the body and soul through her work.
Despite the risk of failure, Barrientos and Tull are pursuing their passions and shaping the future trajectory of Waco’s restaurant scene. As they fight to make their dreams a reality, they are eager to share their vision of delicious, clean eating with the Waco community.
Renois’ vision for success in Waco entails a significant number of thriving, innovative startups, an abundance of open storefronts in the downtown area and opportunities for students to stay in Waco upon graduation. Thanks to risk-taking entrepreneurs like Tate, Barrientos and Tull, that’s not far from Waco’s future.