Feasted Upon

In this cynical age, cynics like to observe that pioneers are the ones who take the arrows. As a corollary to that, it should perhaps be observed that successful pioneers, the ones with the arrow scars, are likely to be shot in the back by the heavy artillery of the established communities that follow in their wake.

That, it seems, is a fitting analogy for the pioneering health food store and restaurant A Moveable Feast, launched in 1971 by the husband-and-wife team of Dick and Roxanne Wedegartner in a 900-square-foot structure located at 908 Westheimer. In the early years, the business was a nexus of the Houston countercultural scene. Thirty years ago, going public with anything suggestive of nonconformity was an excitingly bold action.

The Houston of 1971 had approximately half the population it does today. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was still a hotly controversial piece of legislation. Chief of police Herman Short supervised a department that shot up the dormitories at Texas Southern University for no particular reason, killed a black political activist in a sniper attack on Dowling Street and engineered the drug bust of a civil rights activist attending the University of Houston. The activist received a 30-year sentence for possession of a single marijuana cigarette. A member of the Ku Klux Klan bombed the transmitter of the new noncommercial radio station KPFT. Downtown department stores closed at 4 p.m. The convention, bar and restaurant businesses barely existed. Air-conditioning in public schools was not a given. Houston was a sweaty, sleepy, insular commercial center on the edge of the Deep South, with only the Johnson Space Center to suggest a connection to the Brave New America elsewhere.

The Wedegartners soon departed for the more politically and culturally progressive environs of Massachusetts, selling their business in 1973 to employee John Fain. Under Fain, the business first moved a few blocks east to 416 Westheimer and then to a strip center at 3827 Dunlavy at West Alabama. Finally, it moved a fourth time, to a location at 2202 West Alabama. On February 11, 12 years to the day after it opened at the West Alabama location, A Moveable Feast closed down. A second operation remains at 9431 Katy Freeway near Blalock.

In what seems like a textbook example of irony, what appears to have killed A Moveable Feast was the success of the natural foods movement.

"When we began," Fain recalls, "people would walk into A Moveable Feast and ask, 'You hippies actually eat this stuff?' " (The original store had such details as a flour mill, a peanut butter machine and bulk items stored in a series of galvanized garbage cans -- bought new for the purpose, of course.) "We had to go back and forth with the health department about those cans," Fain adds, "but we finally got them approved."

Today, stores offering organic produce, bulk cereals, herbal extracts for use as homeopathic medicines and so on are no longer tiny operations located in marginal enclaves of the disaffected. A Moveable Feast expanded over time -- the West Alabama location occupied 7,000 square feet of rental property. The Whole Foods operation that used to exist around the corner at 2934 South Shepherd Drive was in a 20,000-square-foot space. That store, one of four Whole Foods operations in Houston today, moved on May 14 of last year to a 40,000-square-foot stand-alone building at the corner of West Alabama and Kirby Drive.

Whole Foods Markets began as a single store in Austin in 1980 for the patchouli-oil-and-Birkenstocks set. When the first Houston operation opened on August 14, 1984, there were still only a handful of Whole Foods Markets, all of them in Texas. Today, there are 122 stores around the United States, with more on the way. It is a publicly traded company that's well regarded by industry analysts.

"I believed in back-to-the-land, in organics, in health foods," Fain wistfully recounts. "As awareness of the benefits of a more natural lifestyle grew, I thought I would share in that."

Instead, he and his wife of 22 years, Suzanne, found their business shrinking when Whole Foods moved to its big new location at Kirby. "They took so much of my volume," Fain explains. "I hated to close it; we had roots there."

Suzanne Fain recollects that when the original Shepherd Whole Foods opened, A Moveable Feast's business dropped "for four to six months because everybody wanted to see this new store, but then it came back." "We had been through it before," she says. "But we just couldn't hold out long enough" at the West Alabama location.

John Fain prefers to be philosophical about this dramatic market shift. "I'm not trying to be bitter," he says. Instead, he observes that today Whole Foods is "the 800-pound gorilla" in what used to be a business that attempted to be a practical application of the small-is-beautiful philosophy.

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George Alexander