The Shop Around the Corner

When Foxtrot founders and friends Taylor Bloom and Mike LaVitola were dreaming up their new upscale corner store in Chicago, they knew they had to offer one specific thing: breakfast tacos, the traditional grab-and-go breakfast from their joint once-home of Austin.  

“When we got up here to Chicago, there was no place to get really good breakfast tacos,” Bloom, MS ’13, Life Member, says. “And so, we actually started making our own … because we missed that piece of Austin so much.” 

A decade later, Foxtrot is making its mark in the place where it all started. Foxtrot is one of those businesses that doesn’t look out of place at all in this brave new world of a less weird, more tech-heavy Austin. It’s a corner store, sort of, but it’s also a coffee shop and a wine bar and a grab-and-go counter and a grocery store and a place where you can get that $9 pint of artisanal ice cream meant for a special occasion. Oh, and it delivers in 30 minutes, should it be a couch-heavy day. Since it opened, Foxtrot now has more than two dozen locations in Chicago, Dallas, Washington, D.C., Virginia, and Maryland. And by the end of 2023, there will be four of them in Austin—with locations on South First and Burnet opening in early 2023, and locations downtown and on the Drag later this year.  

“After living in both Austin and Chicago, we really fell in love with the amazing, creative, and delicious food and beverage world that was going on around us,” LaVitola says. “We realized that none of this exciting world was in the stores that were closest to us, which were our local corner stores. We wanted to see what it would be like to take those traditional convenience categories of coffee, snacks, beer, and wine, and reimagine them with shelves filled with favorites from our friends around the city and beyond.” 

LaVitola first pitched the idea for Foxtrot at the 2013 SXSW MBA Startup competition when he was studying business at the University of Chicago. While in Austin, he met Bloom, who was completing his graduate computer science degree at UT. The pair became friends, then business partners after they bonded over their passion for this idea LaVitola had for a “corner store in your pocket”—a website or app that would deliver specialty snacks and essentials. It felt like they were onto something, so when Bloom graduated from UT three months later, he decided to take the leap and move to Chicago—at least for the summer. 

“I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do [after grad school]. I knew I didn’t want to go to work for like a Google or Facebook … and I always wanted to do something entrepreneurial,” Bloom says. “Like many things in life, timing is so important. [Mike and I had] been working around Foxtrot a bit and talking about the idea, and he was eventually just like, ‘do you want to come up for the summer and build it and give it a go?’ And I honestly thought, sure, why not?”

So, Bloom got to work building Foxtrot’s app and website, coding all day in LaVitola’s apartment. In its first iteration, Foxtrot didn’t have a physical location. Instead, they partnered with a local grocery store to provide the actual inventory they were delivering—not unlike Instacart, but with a more “curated selection.”   

“When we first started, every single time we’d get an order, we’d be so excited, like we’d get three orders on a Friday, and it would be a huge celebration. And I’d be calling Mike and we’d be so happy [that] somebody actually figured it out and then wants to use this,” Bloom says.  

But it was when they started to get orders during the week as well—on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays—that Bloom made the decision to remain in Chicago permanently to see Foxtrot through. Although the burgeoning company required him to be everything from a programmer to a delivery driver, Bloom found the day-to-day more exciting than a traditional tech job.  

“In the early days, like any startup, yes, my focus was on building the technology, but we were doing everything,” Bloom says. “I was doing deliveries. We were going to the store to figure out what inventory we should carry. It’s so fun in those early days of a company because you really get to wear a lot of hats and every day was different. And, yes, I was heads down coding a lot, but I was in kind of everything.” 

Two years into running Foxtrot, LaVitola and Bloom were looking for opportunities to scale up. For one thing, they needed a retail liquor license if they wanted to expand their alcohol delivery. They also wanted to have more control over their inventory. So, they decided to open their first retail location in Chicago’s West Loop in 2015. As luck would have it, the area they initially selected for cheap rent grew to be a tech hub not long after, boosting Foxtrot’s reach among the tech workers who found it nearby. Even more luckily, the retail location directed even more customers to the app, bringing their vision to life.  

“Every time we would open a new retail location, we would see online demand for deliveries in that particular area light up,” Bloom says. 

With that, they saw how Foxtrot could exist both virtually and as a physical store, putting equal focus on both aspects of the business. It’s how their reach expands past that of a classic corner store—delivery means people outside the neighborhood can get their products, even if Foxtrot isn’t within walking distance, and having that corner store/coffee shop/wine bar/grab-and-go counter/etc. creates a gathering place and destination that can also lead people to their delivery feature. It’s a symbiotic relationship.  

Another big part of Foxtrot’s identity is stocking local companies’ wares on its shelves unique to each location.  

Even though Foxtrot’s retail side emulates the classic corner store or neighborhood grocer, you won’t find standard corner store fare on its shelves. In Austin, instead of Cheetos, Twinkies, and cans of Modelo, there’s Lick Honest Ice Creams, made-to-order avocado toast, and Pinthouse’s Electric Jellyfish IPA. Despite all its tech-iness, a big part of what separates Foxtrot—its focus on local—is a manual process. Their merchandising team spends months in each new market, finding out what the neighborhood wants that other corner stores or big-brand shops don’t provide. 

“The easy path is to have one or two national vendors and get all of your products from them,” Bloom says. “What’s harder is getting into these markets and really trying to understand, what is the cool bakery, the cool craft brewery, the cool coffee roaster?” 

Not long after Foxtrot opened in Dallas—their first location outside of Chicago—in 2019, they reached out to a local writer and influencer, Emma Golden Miller, for help tapping into the area. In exchange for promotion on her Instagram feed, Foxtrot gives Golden Miller credits to her account. Golden Miller, who has amassed nearly 14,000 Instagram followers for her lifestyle content, says she can afford to be a little picky about whom she works with—and Foxtrot is one of the only ongoing brand partnerships she keeps. It’s the company’s functionality and approachability she appreciates.  

“I knew Foxtrot from Chicago because my sister lives in Chicago. She took me there on one of my trips to see her and was like, ‘Emma, you have to check this place out. It’s so amazing. It’s like a market, a coffee shop, but you can get beer and wine, it’s so cool,’” Golden Miller says. She agreed, making working with Foxtrot an “easy yes.”  

“It definitely appeals to a younger audience, but it’s like the perfect balance between being functional and having what you might need, but also being hip and somewhere that you want to hang out,” Golden Miller says. “And I have definitely utilized it for every single one of those things: I’ve met friends there for happy hour. I get coffee there as many mornings during the week as I can because it’s literally my favorite coffee I’ve ever had. And I’ve had a lot of coffee in my life.” 

Bloom and William at a Chicago Foxtrot location.

CFO and President Liz Williams, BBA ’98, joined Foxtrot in 2022 following a decade with Yum! Brands (home of some of everyone’s favorite fast-food giants: Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and KFC). After working in the fast-paced world of drive-thrus and corner stores, she is ready to usher in a new era with Foxtrot. Part of that new era: a location on the Drag right next to the Co-op opening later in 2023. As Austin’s hub for UT students, the Drag has changed throughout the years as businesses have opened and shuttered with continuing regularity. But there has always been a need for a place to sit and study or hang out, and the long-term tenants on the Drag such as Hole in the Wall and Caffe Medici offer that. Williams sees Foxtrot as an answer to that need—with the bonus of it being a place to grab a quick sandwich or snack on the way to class as well. They’ve also already seen success with their locations near Southern Methodist University in Dallas and Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. 

“I think people are looking for a place to be able to go and to connect. So many different coffee and cafe offerings have moved to, quite frankly, places you wouldn’t want to stay and hang out or meet someone,” Williams says. “[With Foxtrot], you can order online and pick up, but you can also come in and linger in our stores. I think that is something consumers appreciate.” 

Of course, the expansion into Austin isn’t just for a love of tacos or UT. It’s a full-circle moment for LaVitola and Bloom.  

“From really 2013, from when we first started it, we always said how much we both wanted to get [Foxtrot] open in Austin, how much we thought Austin would be a great market for what we were doing,” Bloom says. “Did I know at the time it would take us 10 years to get there? No, but I’m really, really pumped for it.”   

CREDITS: Courtesy Foxtrot; portrait by Matthew Gilson


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