By Meredith Wagner | Arts & Life Editor
A formerly quiet portion of Waco is now bustling with noise and new faces. Despite its distance from campus, the area between 11th Street and 27th Street on Austin Avenue, referred to by some as “Uptown” Waco, is experiencing a rapid economic and communal growth.
Local favorite Happy Harvest is adding to this growth by opening its first sit-down restaurant at 112 N 25th St. later this spring, where students and locals alike will be able to congregate over kombucha on tap, coffee on drip and unique, homemade health foods already beloved by many Wacoans.
Happy Harvest is owned and operated by head chef Juanita Barrientos and her business parter, Toby Tull, both of whom have spent years devoted to the art of preparing quality food. Barrientos began her journey in her kitchen as a young girl.
“The love comes from my mom. She was a really good cook,” Barrientos said.
Barrientos grew up enjoying her mother’s recipes, which she said always reflected her mother’s knack for eating healthy. At a young age, however, Barrientos’ life quickly flipped upside-down.
“I lost my mom when I was fifteen years old in a tragic accident,” Barrientos said. “I love talking about her. It doesn’t make me sad. It makes me happy. Even still, when I’m trying to think of a menu, I definitely think of my mom.”
With the knowledge and love for food her mother instilled in her, Barrientos attended Texas A&M for a bachelor’s degree in nutrition. While in school, Barrientos joined a restaurant club, where she met an instructor that taught at Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Austin. She said she wanted to attend culinary school immediately, but her family encouraged her to finish her degree in nutrition first.
“Ten days after I graduated from A&M, I moved to Austin to go to culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu,” Barrientos said. “It was one of the best years of my life. I learned technique, I learned how to taste food, I learned that mushrooms aren’t actually gross,” she said, laughing.
Happy Harvest co-owner Tull and his family own The Home Grown Farm, an organic small-scale farm in Gholson. Tull also owns Barebucha, a relatively new, small-batch kombucha company in Waco. Barrientos and Tull met at the Waco Downtown Farmers Market, where Barrientos was seeking local produce for her pre-made health food company, formerly known as “Crave.” The two eventually joined forces and renamed the company.
Currently, Happy Harvests’ pre-packaged, whole food meals can be purchased from their shop located at 611 Bowden Drive. Happy Harvest products are available throughout town in local small businesses, such as Pinewood Coffee Bar. They are also present at the Waco Downtown Farmers Market every Saturday morning, where they share a booth with The Home Grown Farm.
Happy Harvest occasionally hosts farm-to-table dinners at The Home Grown Farm, where attendees can enjoy a meal on the same soil their food was grown.
“You sit out there, outside, watch the sunset and the farm is right there,” Barrientos said. “It really is an experience.”
Happy Harvest also recently partnered with Cultivate 7twelve, a new fine art nonprofit located downtown on Austin Avenue, to host “art-to-table” dinners. During these dinners, Juanita invents edible dishes that represent, either realistically or abstractly, the work of various local artists. “That we know of, we’re the first ever in Texas to do an art-to-table,” Barrientos said.
After gaining exposure throughout town for nearly three years, Happy Harvest is ready to launch their own comprehensive restaurant experience in Waco.
“Waco is always a few steps behind when it comes to health food, so we really want to impact our community in that way,” Barrientos said. “A lot of people think that healthy foods usually taste like cardboard, and it’s not interesting, but we approach it from a flavor point of view. If it tastes good, anyone’s going to eat it. That’s most important.”
Their allergy-friendly, diet-friendly creations are developed through processes that often take longer than those of a typical restaurant. This is because, for Barrientos, “It’s all about the details.”
From pre-soaking their grains in order to eliminate phytic acid, to developing alternative sweeteners for their baked goods, to altering their menu to reflect seasonal produce, Barrientos said they place the quality of their ingredients first and foremost. Barrientos said she is excited by the prospect of bringing her creations to a new part of town.
“I’m just excited that another part of Waco is being touched and paid attention to,” she said.
The sudden growth in this area is widely accredited to Pinewood Coffee Bar for opening its doors to the public September of last year. Pinewood carries Happy Harvests’ baked goods and lunch options, and co-owner Dylan Washington said he is excited that Happy Harvest anticipates opening its doors just down the street.
“We were very adamant about getting them over here,” Washington said. “That was our first client at Pinewood,” referring to Toby Tull being Pinewood’s very first customer. “Six months ago, there was nothing over here. Now, you can eat and talk, have a beer, and get bare ‘bucha to make your gut feel good again after all that.”
Washington is one of the hopeful investors in this part of town. “I think here, in about six more months, this is going to be a really happening place,” he said.
The excitement and respect for one another was mutually expressed.
“Honestly, Pinewood coming here, it has attracted a lot of people in this area. It’s really exciting,” Barrientos said. At least for the two business, it is evident that Tull and Barrientos’s vision is bringing a community together.
“It’s kind of the next step toward what I really want. What I really want is a full-blown restaurant where we are serving beautiful farm-to-table food every single day, but that’s more down the line,” Barrientos said. “This one is more of a causal, comfortable, everyday place where people can go to have lunch or breakfast. We’re hoping to make it a place where you can hang out, read a book, have a cup of coffee.”
Plans brewing just beyond the horizon, Barrientos reflected on the reason she entered the industry in the first place.
“We’re still going through our growing pains, just like any small business,” Barrientos said. “The restaurant business is one of the hardest jobs you could ever, ever, ever have. Everyone tells me that, but it has never scared me away. There’s nothing else I want. It’s a labour of love.”