Does Amarillo Texas love local more than any other city?

“People in Amarillo love local food and local businesses.”  “The more local you are, the more Amarillo customers like you.”

At first glance, Amarillo Texas doesn’t seem like a bastion of local food.  Amarillo is the biggest town in the dry and dusty Texas Panhandle. As you approach this High Plains city, such title does not seem to fit the treeless, monocultured landscape surrounding Amarillo. Then, as you get to the edge of Amarillo, you come upon a display of ten Cadillacs buried with their noses in the ground and their tails waving to new arrivals.  That’s your first indication that Amarillo has some interesting people. Interstate 40 slices through town to reveal the usual chain stores at most interchanges. But get off the interstate and the you find the truth of the city. We soon learned once again that resilience and sustainability depend on the attitudes and qualities of the people not the ecosystem where they live.

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The first thing we found is that the dominant grocery store chain is local.  It’s called United and has 13 supermarkets in Amarillo with six as big as Walmart.  They try to buy all their produce from local farmers.  The farm providing the food is cited at point of purchase displays.

The dominant convenience store chain is also local and buys local food. The present owner’s father began Toot’n Totum with one store in Amarillo in 1950. Today, with 68 stores, the Amarillo company has as much as 80% of the convenience store market share in Amarillo.  Toot’n Totum has expanded by out-competing and then buying out stores belonging to national chains.  They bought 12 Jiffy Food Stores in 1969, four Circle K’s in 1985, 15 7-Elevens in 1988, 11 Diamond Shamrocks in 1995, 10 Phillips66 stores in 2004 and 10 Express Land stores in 2013.

Toot’n Totum isn’t the only locally-owned convenience store chain in town. Pak-A-Sak coordinates 21 stores from its headquarters in Amarillo.  In 1978 Dale and Joyce McKee opened the first Pak-A-Sak convenience store in nearby Canyon, TX. Now their three sons, with help from the third generation, runs the local chain from Amarillo.

In 2010 Pak-A-Sak followed Toot’n Totum’s lead and bought out stores of a national chain. Pak-A-Sak bought two primarily drive-thru Starbucks locations and turned them into Pak-A-Sak Expresses.

The Starbucks locations were available since a local coffee company is preferred by Amarilloans.  Roasters was opened in 1992 to bring the finest coffee freshly roasted to Amarillo.  They have several locations and also provide coffee for local burrito stores.

Tex-Mex food is another area where Amarillo folk prefer a local company: Sharkey’s—named after longtime chef Sharkey Gonzalez.  Chipotle found out when it floundered in the Amarillo market. Chipotle’s business model (a fast, casual, build-your-own concept instead of full service) is virtually identical to Sharkey’s so they were going head to head for the same customers.  Chipotle’s sales nosedived after being established in 2014. Locals predict Chipotle will soon leave town, citing lower prices and more personal service at Sharkey’s.

Sharkey’s has locations in two other nearby cities.  Chipotle appears to have not learned its lesson in Amarillo since they recently (February 2017) opened a store in Abilene, near the Sharkey’s location. Sharkey’s is also planning a second store in Amarillo.

In the Mexican fast food arena, Amarilloans also prefer the local businesses.  Taco Villa is a local chain with stores throughout west Texas and just across the border in New Mexico.  Taco Bell and Taco Bueno just can’t provide the local connection.

Italian food is another area where Amarillo prefers locally-owned businesses.  Macaroni Joe’s is a locally owned and operated establishment and has been serving its customers since 1999. Macaroni Joe’s focuses on the same dining experience offered by Olive Garden, a national chain.  Olive Garden attracts visitors coming through on I-40 while the locals vastly prefer Macaroni Joe’s.

The owners of Macaroni Joe’s have used their local notoriety to establish stand alone business focusing on barbecue (Joe Daddy’s), tacos (Joe Taco) and catering (Joe’s Catering).

Fine dining is not a crowded sector in Amarillo, but chef Dillan Mena has transformed Midtown Kitchen and, most recently, Ember Steak House to become focused on local food.

Amarilloans’ preference for local food is also seen in specific products. Tascosa Hot Sauce has been in the area since 1957 and made in a small building near downtown Amarillo.   It’s a family business makes about 280 gallons of hot sauce a day.    That’s about 1,800 jars a day.  One of the unique things about the product is it’s made by hand. It originated in a small, family owned tortilla factory, Tascosa Tortilla Company. Tascosa Hot Sauce began commercial wholesale distribution in the mid-90’s and has been Tascosa-ing’ taste buds all over the country ever since. They’ve shipped the product to over 26 states and internationally.

The source of local food for these business are a handful of producers who stress greenhouse production combined with some outdoor growing.  Ronnie Kimbrell is a pioneer and leader among these growers.  He established and managed the Amarillo Farmer’s Market until 2016.  How and why he did it all is a topic for another essay, but his story is as fascinating as the overall Amarillo dedication to locally-owned businesses.

The Resilience Project came to Amarillo because our quantitative index of sustainability and resilience showed the Amarillo area to rank among the highest in the South.  Our in depth study of the city supports the principle that resilient cities support locally-owned and operated businesses.  These businesses must be self-organized by the residents of the community.

Similarly, communities which bounce back from floods are the ones where locals organize themselves to deal with disasters.  Self-organized systems are the hallmark of resilience to any disturbance.  In food systems, that means locally owned processing and marketing will dominate.  They sure do in Amarillo.

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