Just looking at the live music lineup performing at the Whip In’s 30th anniversary bash tomorrow gives you a sense of how special this gas station-turned-craft beer bar has become for Austin.
Among the acts playing, once the event kicks off at 1 p.m., are Money Chicha, Star Parks, the Sour Notes, Los Coast, Elijah Ford and Hello Nomad. It’s a lineup Whip In staffers are quite proud of.
“We’ve got lots of big acts coming in for the party that we really have no business having here because we’re tiny, but we asked them and they said, ‘Oh my god, we love the Whip In!’” MJ Smith, Whip In’s general manager, said.
That’s a sentiment shared across a wide swath of the city, no matter how long you’ve lived here, what part of Austin you hang your hat or whether you’re even much of a beer drinker. The Whip In, which was purchased in 1986 by Indian immigrants Amrit and Chandan Topiwala, has become many things over the years: a mom-and-pop Indian food restaurant, wine bar, beer bar and, at one point, a brewpub that sold small amounts of beer made in-house.
A big reason for its success — thriving in an old building off Interstate 35 in South Austin — is the sense of community the Topiwalas, along with their son Dipak, have carefully built around it. They treat staff like family, Smith said, and pay employees a higher-than-average wage that turns the Whip In into a career, not just a job. In turn, employees host regular events that draw in Austinites, offering everything from open mic nights to poetry readings to beer can chicken contests.
Then, of course, there’s the beer.
In addition to a tap wall capable of pouring more than 70 beers, the Whip In also has a bottle shop in the back with a variety of cans, bottles and bombers. Keeping both the draft and packaged options stocked is a never-ending task, Smith said.
“Courtney, our beer buyer, is doing what Mr. Topiwala used to do,” Smith said. “He’s meeting with distributors constantly and always changing out our bottle selection. That’s a full-time job just in itself. Bottled and draft, our beers are always whatever is new, although we do have staples, too. Like Live Oak Brewing, we can’t keep that on the shelf.”
The Whip In started out as a convenience store and gas station in a rough part of town. But the business wasn’t enough: A 1980s recession meant the Topiwalas, who were constantly working while raising a family, had to get creative. Getting into beer, Amrit Topiwala said, developed as a necessity.
“The real reason I chose to have lots of beer was the recession. ‘How am I going to survive in the recession?'” he said at a recent interview.
“People drink no matter what,” Smith put in.
“But I had to teach them,” Topiwala said. “I had Budwesier, Miller and Coors, but I would have them try a six-pack variety of other beers and see what they thought.”
He was bringing beers — many of them, like Spaten or Chimay, from European breweries — into Central Texas “20 years before craft beer was really here,” he said. And people took notice of this quirky bottle shop at the edge of town and began ordering from it, driving in from as far away as the big cities of Dallas and Houston and sometimes leaving with whole cases of beer. In the 1990s, Topiwala was also the beer supplier of many a Friday office party.
The Whip In shifted again in the 2000s, serving beer in addition to offering it to-go and becoming an Indian restaurant serving up Chandan Topiwala’s recipes. The current chef, Shaun Verespej, has revamped the menu, and although the prices are a little higher now, it’s for good reason.
“We were all organic and tried to source all local foods, and we lost that,” he said about the Whip In’s original menu. “We’ve been trying to bring that back.”
Saturday’s party will have a roasted goat taco on special starting at 3 p.m. (with the option of substituting the goat for falafel for the vegetarians out there). Order it early: Whip In specials tend to go fast, especially when there’s a celebration.
Both Smith and Verespej see the party as a bright spot in the history of the Whip In, with many more good years to come. One day, maybe, the Topiwalas will find an additional location. Or maybe, god forbid, they’ll finally retire and leave their beloved shop in the hands of people who want it to continue on. No matter what, Amrit Topiwala knows the Whip In will continue transforming, just as it always has. Its evolution just might be why the Whip In has made it to 30.
“Success is always taking the opportunity to change things,” Topiwala said.
The Whip In is located at 1950 S. Interstate 35. For more information, visit whipin.com.