Healthy fast food no more, Baby Greens set to close in North Austin – Austin American-Statesman

After serving an assortment of salads and wraps to Austinites on the go for years, Baby Greens in North Austin is shutting down, despite its success, as finding help in the kitchen has proven to be a real problem.
Lean and mighty, the fast-food restaurant owned and operated by Austin native Sharon Mays since 2004 has pushed out orders with a limited staff for nearly two years.
But rising housing costs in the city and brimming opportunities elsewhere have compounded a growing struggle food industry workers face in financially justifying a life in the Texas capital, which has left Mays with no choice but to stop serving her signature salads.
“I’m proud of us because three people have been here and making it happen every day, it’s a rare occasion when we screw up,” Mays said as she folded a stream of veggie wraps during Tuesday’s lunch rush.
Mays announced this week that Baby Greens will be closing for good Friday once the business day ends at 7 p.m.
Originally opening its doors in South Austin in 2004, Baby Greens took a seven-year hiatus starting in 2009 before reopening on Research Boulevard on the north side in 2016.
This time, Mays is uncertain what the future holds because whatever food industry move comes next for her, she fears hiring struggles, supply issues and unfavorable housing market conditions will remain a threat.
“The thing about innovation is that sometimes it comes when things fall apart, and that’s where we’re at right now,” Mays said.
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Prior to the announcement and upcoming departure of one of Mays’ two employees, Baby Greens was considering an offer to add a location on the University of Texas campus, a deal that included a location in the student union and a steady flow of hungry college students.
At the same time, the business was continuing to pursue catering opportunities and the possibility of growing the healthy fast-food restaurant’s brand through franchise expansion.
However, when employee Derrick Walker began an apartment search around Austin in January that yielded no viable results, and an opportunity to buy a house priced at $80,000 in his hometown of Texarkana became available, his decision to relocate became clear.
Instead of choosing from one-bedroom apartments set to cost around $1,500 and up in Austin, which require residents to make as much as three times their rent monthly, Walker chose the three-bedroom Texarkana home with plenty of space and a big backyard for himself, wife, granddaughters and pets.
“I feel bad because I’m the one leaving,” Walker said. “But as far as the cost of living, man, you can’t beat that.”
In the meantime, Baby Greens has looked to hire new employees with wages starting at $17 an hour, $5 higher than the industry average in Austin, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Mays said she has not been able to make a hire because candidates are simply not walking in the door, forcing her hand to come up with a new plan moving forward.
“It’s hard to think about where this is going because it’s still just me,” Mays said.
Mays’ own uncertainty is further affected by economic considerations that are out of her control. The Labor Department’s most recent consumer price index report shows costs across the board for goods and services rose by 8.3% over the year ending in August, with increases specifically impacting food and shelter costs.
And Austin’s rental market is the fifth fastest growing market in the country, as the average price for rent in the city increased by a staggering 86% over the previous 12 months ending in August, according to Dwellsy, a U.S. rent tracker.
The $2,930 median rent in Austin, largely driven by single-family home and apartment prices, is also the fifth most expensive in the country, which makes many residents, including those working in the food industry, reconsider living in the capital as income requirements at many locations will be out of reach.
“The problem is especially acute in cities like Austin, where we see affordability just becoming a bigger and bigger challenge,” said Kelsey Erickson Streufert, chief public affairs officer for the Texas Restaurant Association.
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Beyond rent, Streufert said other costs, such as child care expenses, along with transportation and food, mean fewer people can feel comfortable with a job waiting tables, at the drive-thru window, in the kitchen or behind the bar.
“And so when you’re adding all of that up, it’s a real challenge to find workers who can make that math work, frankly,” Streufert said.
Sixty-seven percent of restaurant operators in Texas say they don’t have enough employees to support current customer demand, according to a National Restaurant Association study that interviewed 4,200 respondents in July and August.
That is a situation Mays understands well, not only as a business owner but also in her role as chair of the Austin Travis County Food Policy Board.
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During her time on the advisory board and throughout the pandemic, Mays focused on creating incentives and access for people looking to make a career in the food industry.
The recommendations the board made to the Austin City Council and Travis County Commissioners Court included rental assistance programs to be coordinated with landlords, property tax relief and simply explaining to prospective employees that fast-food work is not unskilled labor and can be a good career path.
She also wanted to provide opportunities at her own restaurant, just 1 mile from where she was raised in North Austin, for people wanting to work in the food business despite having experienced myriad of financial, physical and mental abuse that can come with working in the industry.
“To be able to bring my restaurant into a neighborhood that I grew up in, like that’s a big thing for me,” Mays said. “At the end of the day, that’s the thing that I can take pride in saying, ‘I tried my best, you know, I tried my absolute best, I really thought that we were going to make it.'”
While all three Baby Greens employees agreed the end of the era is much more bitter than sweet, customers are also having a hard time saying goodbye.
In response to Mays’ closure announcement on Instagram, more than 100 people commented to thank the popular eatery for its service, to implore her to reconsider the move and to express utter disbelief.
Employee Isaiah Watts has been the one to break the news to many customers at the drive-thru window.
“I’ve had to watch multiple people look me in the eyes and have their heartbreak because I’m like, ‘We gotta go,'” Watts said. “Everyone’s taking it worse than I expected them to, but it just shows that we did something.”
Watts joined Baby Greens close to two years ago in what was his third job in the food industry. Now he, too, has to say goodbye to a place he never anticipated leaving.
“I think we could, in theory, try to stay open. And we could try to make it work with how many little people we are, but I feel like we’re going to end up doing damage to ourselves that’s irreparable,” Watts said as Mays agreed.
So, for now, Baby Greens will stop serving customers at 10611 Research Blvd. after Friday. Until then, the restaurant will be open for regular hours between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m.
Mays still intends to fill a number of previous catering requests over the coming weeks and does not plan to give up access to her current building, but after those orders are filled, it remains to be seen what comes next.
“I want to honor this company, my customers, my employees, what we have been able to achieve in the last 2½ years through the pandemic,” Mays said. “I want to at least be able to do that with some pride and respect to say that we came as far as we could. We worked really, really hard to make it.”

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