A couple of weeks ago, I went to Waco, Texas, on purpose for the first time in my adult life. I was headed there to check out the sprawling retail and restaurant empire helmed by Chip and Joanna Gaines. It’s somehow attracting millions of visitors each year, to a place that I — a nearly lifelong Texan — had only ever perceived at best as a place to stop and pee on the way to Austin, and at worst as the home of an awful cult massacre and Baylor University, a college so conservative that it banned dancing until the 1990s, and continues to ban LGBTQ student groups on campus.
Since 2013, though, Waco has quietly grown into a tourist destination, thanks in large part to the Gaines’ businesses. It’s a place that has inspired what seems like a thousand think pieces about its revitalization, a welcome break from the city’s prior reputation. Despite its small-town charm, Waco has been somewhat unwillingly connected to violence since 1993, when the infamous Branch Davidian compound siege carried out by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms dominated the news cycle. The siege lasted 51 days, and at the end, 51 people were killed, including Branch Davidian leader David Koresh, a violent gun-hoarder who claimed to be a descendant of King David. Memories of that tragedy were stirred again in 2015, when a shootout between biker gangs at a Waco restaurant left nine people dead.
Now that Waco’s future has been thoroughly debated, the question that remains is how what happened here will impact the future of retail, and perhaps more importantly, the ways that fans experience the personalities and influencers that they worship. Before their Fixer Upper fame on HGTV, Chip and Joanna Gaines were longtime residents and graduates of Baylor University, and they’ve since transformed into the new tastemakers of middle-class chic directly from their home base.
For serious Gaines enthusiasts, a pilgrimage to Waco is an absolute must. In 2018 alone, the city welcomed more than 2.5 million tourists, the vast majority of whom likely headed to the Silos District. It’s the epicenter of Chip and Joanna’s success, and home to many of the properties that the couple renovated on television; millions of fans are desperate to see Waco’s down-home charms for themselves. Visiting those has proven so popular that multiple owners of Gaines-associated properties have moved out of their homes because they were tired of being annoyed by the show’s fans. Tour companies sell Chip and Joanna-themed trips across the city, making stops at all of the couple’s retail shops, restaurants, and homes that they remodeled on the show.
So for the people who are headed to Waco now, Koresh and biker gangs are likely the furthest things from their minds. They’re headed directly to Magnolia Market, the home decor shop that’s the crown jewel of Chip and Joanna’s retail empire, selling their signature Magnolia Home decor line.
In addition to Magnolia Market, the Gaineses own Magnolia Press, a coffee shop that opened steps away from Magnolia Market earlier this year, and Silos Baking Company, a pastry shop that’s located inside an old home that was remodeled by the couple on the show. There are also multiple vacation rentals in Waco, Joanna’s line of “premium paint” at Ace Hardware, and best-selling books written by both her and Chip. Oh, and a full-service restaurant called Magnolia Table that seems to perpetually operate on a multi-hour wait.
After magically finding a spot in the ever-crowded lot and waiting only about 30 minutes for a table — parties of three or four had to wait an hour or more — I ate Joanna’s famed biscuits and sipped a lavender latte. Once I’d fueled up on carbs and steeled my nerves for the crowds at Magnolia Market, I plugged its address into my GPS and made the 10-minute drive over to the Silos District.
The rapidly-developing neighborhood takes its name from two giant grain silos that tower over Magnolia Market, lending a perfect hint of farmhouse authenticity to a brand-new development that’s centered around an Astroturf courtyard. Outside, an armed police officer stood watch as Magnolia employees orderly herded shoppers and gawkers into the 12,000-square-foot space packed with Magnolia-branded decor.
The impending holidays meant that pretty much every surface in the space was draped with pine garland or twinkling white lights, and displays of perfectly decorated Christmas trees adorned in muted tones and wall hangings with words like “hope,” “merry,” and “Noel,” written in shimmery, loopy script. The place was wall-to-wall packed with shoppers snapping up armfuls of coffee mugs and faux plants before queueing up in stanchion-organized lines for 30 minutes to pay for their purchases.
And that’s really the whole point. Shopping at Magnolia Market is less about buying the actual wreath made of fake magnolia leaves than it is about having the experience there in Waco — snapping selfies in front of the Silos, ogling Joanna’s design choices, and sipping sweet tea from mason jars while browsing through wares. It’s an experience that appeals to an audience that’s mostly women, but beyond that, the Gaineses’ appeal seems to transcend political differences, despite some pretty clear indicators that Chip and Joanna may have taken sides in the culture wars.
To some extent, the Gaines brand is likely thriving in part because it is also a signifier of cultural values — specifically, conservative Christian values. Despite their all-American image, Chip and Joanna Gaines are not uncontroversial figures. In 2016, BuzzFeed reported that the Gaineses attended a church that vocally opposed gay marriage, and the church’s pastor Jimmy Seibert has professed support for conversion therapy, a practice that the American Psychological Association has described as having “serious potential to harm young people.” The couple has also been criticized for never featuring a gay couple on any episodes of Fixer Upper, and have never publicly disavowed their church’s anti-gay views. For its part, HGTV issued a statement at the time of the controversy asserting that it “[does not] discriminate against members of the LGBT community in any of our shows.”
Even though it’s pretty unlikely that you’ll see the couple behind the counter wrapping up packages, their presence is everywhere. Magnolia Market is a window into this wholesome couple’s life and worldview. It’s destination shopping with a subtly evangelical Christian veneer, evidenced only by small details like wall signs inscribed with Bible verses or the fact that none of the Magnolia establishments are open on Sundays or serve alcohol.
While the Gaineses are pioneering the execution of destination shopping, they’re also capitalizing on a concept pursued by their reality television predecessors. From 2006 to 2018, Kim, Khloe, and Kourtney Kardashian operated a small chain of boutiques called Dash, which attracted Keeping Up With The Kardashians fans in droves.
A more accurate analogue to Chip and Jo, though, is probably lifestyle mogul Ree Drummond. Drummond got her start as a blogger detailing her journey from city girl to ranch wife on her blog, called The Pioneer Woman, sharing heartwarming anecdotes about her husband and writing popular recipes for comfort food classics like smothered pork chops, chicken fried steak, and macaroni and cheese. She parlayed that blog into a series of cookbooks, a Food Network television show called The Pioneer Woman Cooks, and eventually, her own line of Pioneer Woman-branded housewares sold at Walmart.
The most recent addition to Drummond’s empire is her Mercantile in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. Home to about 3,600 resident, the Mercantile brought a dramatic economic windfall to the working-class town, as upwards of 12,000 people poured into the property’s restaurant and retail shop every single day. The sudden influx of Pioneer Woman fans resulted in a 33 percent increase in Pawhuska’s sales tax revenue in 2017, and along with her boutique hotel, Drummond’s businesses are considered major contributors to the regional economy. Meanwhile, Drummond’s net worth has swelled to an estimated $50 million.
The common thread between the success of these surprising new retail hubs in Waco and Pawhuska is how accessible they feel. Destination shopping — think buying an Hermes bag in Paris or splurging on a bespoke suit in Italy — has always been a thing for the rich. It’s much more affordable for most people to road-trip to Waco or Pawhuska to spend $10, or even $1000, on trendy housewares.
Both Joanna Gaines and Ree Drummond hawk a specific brand of good ol’ days nostalgia for a past that never really existed, and they are both really good at what they do. By making it look so simple, all homemade biscuits and perfectly-clean white walls, it’s easy enough for Gaines and Drummond to sell the products that they endorse to women. Their message of easy, breezy farm life is seductive, communicated in rustic serving platters and cozy blankets — by the end of my trip, the only thing standing between me and a set of bottle-brush Christmas trees in muted earth tones was a line for the check-out that looked to be about 20 people deep.
At the same time that Chip and Joanna are rehabbing Waco’s image, the city is in the midst of massive change. Home sales are soaring, its economy is trending upward, and its population is growing at a much more rapid rate than in recent years. But, as BuzzFeed’s Anne Helen Peterson reported earlier this year, the North Waco area, which has a predominantly African American and Latino population, has been almost entirely shut out by Gaines-related growth.
Meanwhile, the people who do own homes, especially those renovated by the Gaineses, are renting them out on Airbnb for upward of $500 a night. Similar growth has occurred in Pawhuska, where busloads of Pioneer Woman fans descend on Drummond’s Mercantile daily, bringing a boost in tax revenue that’s helped rebuild Pawhuska’s infrastructure.
All of this is happening at the same time that brick-and-mortar retail is struggling to stay alive across the country, and its success is thanks in no small part to its home in Waco, where city leaders welcome the growth the Gaineses have inspired with upwards of $1 million in recommended tax breaks for their planned additions to the Silo District. They’re happy that the city is no longer associated with a shoot-out between federal agents and cult members. Mostly, though, they seem thrilled that their hometown stars align with their hometown values.
“For years, probably the first 10 or 15 years after the [Koresh] standoff, we were hit with that nearly constantly,” City of Waco marketing director Carla Pendergraft told Curbed in 2018. “I’m not saying we don’t hear it from time to time, but Waco has certainly come to terms with it. That has faded, and it’s replaced with the new brand that Chip and Joanna has brought.”
Chip and Joanna Gaines have committed to Waco for the long haul. In June, the couple announced that they’ll invest $10.4 million in revamping their property in the Silos District, with plans to relocate a historic church to the development, build more retail shops, and a spacious new showroom for their Magnolia Home furniture line. Eventually, the dusty gravel lot that currently serves as the Magnolia Market parking lot will be transformed into a gateway of sorts for the Silos District, a project that echoes the city’s own dramatic transformation from a nondescript town on the interstate to a bona fide tourist destination.
Whether or not Chip and Joanna’s popularity on a national scale will continue remains to be seen, though they’re still selling plenty of magazines and candles and decorative metal sconces to people thousands of miles away from Waco. It’s also hard to say how exactly Chip and Joanna’s impact on Waco will be felt in the future.
What is clear is that Chip and Joanna have officially made the transition from reality TV personalities to cultural touchstones, and they’ve built a successful template for the future that can be replicated in any number of economically sluggish small towns across the country. By this time next year, who knows which sleepy little town we’ll all be clamoring to visit, to spend our hard-earned money on items that influencers told us to buy?
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