What Happens When a Small-Town Family Goes Corporate?

Chip and Joanna Gaines won hearts on their show "Fixer Upper." But can they stay relatable as their brand expands?

Target’s new ‘Hearth & Hand’ home decor collaboration with Chip and Joanna Gaines’ Magnolia line in Minnesota, November 2017.Melissamn/Shutterstock

Chip and Joanna Gaines were the best thing to come out of cable TV in decades. Their show “Fixer Upper” was goofy, cute, and family-friendly. They showed that fixing up homes was not just about making money, but about reinvigorating one’s place, helping other families, and resurrecting the treasures of the past. In contrast to Home and Garden Television’s oft-bickering couples, Chip and Joanna joked together, supported each other, and put forth a united family front.

These days, Chip and Joanna aren’t HGTV stars anymore: they announced last year that the fifth season of their show will be their last. But the end of “Fixer Upper,” apart from sentimental reasons, doesn’t really matter—because it made the Gaineses into national celebrities. And while “Fixer Upper” may have departed, Chip and Joanna remain strongly present in the national consciousness. They’ve penned a bestselling biography, Chip has just written a memoir called Capital Gaines, and the couple puts out a seasonal magazine called “Magnolia Journal.”

Now, alongside the opening of their new restaurant in Waco, Joanna Gaines is releasing Magnolia Table, a cookbook full of recipes she’s concocted and collected over the years. Food and family has always been a significant focus of “Fixer Upper”—from the emphasis Chip and Joanna put on bringing pizza and the kids to their reno homes for impromptu picnics, to the scones and cookies Joanna always sets out for her guests during design meetings.

Joanna emphasizes the same values in her new cookbook, which she calls “a celebration of bringing people together.” It is less focused on party-throwing or having guests over, however, than it is on feeding and loving one’s family. “A home-cooked meal is the thing that connects us all the most,” Joanna writes in her introduction. Despite the frenzied rhythm of their familial life, the Gaines still put a strong emphasis on family meals. Joanna shares stories of making biscuits and gravy on Saturday morning, serving tortilla soup for a weeknight dinner, and prepping a loaf of banana bread for her kids when they return home from school. Cooking in the kitchen is Joanna’s time for respite and refocusing, for serving and loving her family.

In contrast to other hospitality gurus like Martha Stewart and Gwyneth Paltrow, Joanna paints herself as decidedly down-to-earth and middle class—less about fancy dinner parties and talismans of wealth, more about family values and simple pleasures. This is epitomized in Magnolia Table, which occasionally references pancetta and arugula, but abounds in middle-class American foods like casseroles and mac and cheese. Joanna balances out her more “fancy” dishes (like roasted asparagus with a red wine béarnaise sauce or fatayar) with classics I remember from my childhood: sour cream chicken enchiladas, BLT sandwiches, and lemon bars. She also lets her readers know that sometimes she feeds her kids Eggos for breakfast.

This fits perfectly with the Gaines ethos. Although they occasionally dabble in the more haut monde hipster fashions of the moment (midcentury furniture, earthy textiles, all the succulents), they are also—always—a Texas farm family. Chip will always tell awkward dad jokes and love biscuits and gravy. Joanna may wear Anthropologie dresses and bohemian jewelry, but she still loves driving on back country roads and eating good barbecue.

In many ways, the Gaines’ success has stemmed from this fusion. They are successful ground-up entrepreneurs and passionate supporters of their hometown, a folksy farm family with a successful marriage and happy kids. But they are also trendsetters: as “Fixer Upper’s” design and philosophical ethos developed, Joanna managed to bring all the bourgeois hipsterdom of Kinfolk magazine’s hospitality ethic, eco-consciousness, and design minimalism into the American mainstream. My Idahoan, antique-loving parents and Birkenstock-wearing D.C. friends adore Chip and Joanna equally. The Gaines are what a lot of Americans aspire to be: integrated, supportive, successful—all without coming across as stuffy, self-entitled, or detached.

The question now is whether Chip and Joanna can keep up this folksy, small-town image as their brand expands. Five years since the launch of “Fixer Upper,” the Gaines aren’t just remodeling houses anymore. They own a giant design warehouse called The Silos, Magnolia Seed + Supply, a cupcake bakery, a restaurant called Magnolia Table, a Target brand called Hearth & Hand, and two bed and breakfasts (Hillcrest House and Magnolia House).

Will fans continue to see Chip and Joanna as personable and relatable now that they have become a corporate behemoth? Can we trust the Gaines’ vision of home, family, and community when they themselves can’t seem to stop growing their empire?

It’s not that any of these enterprises are wrong or off-brand. Joanna’s new cookbook is perfectly in-sync with her televised personality: down-to-earth and beautiful, focused on hospitality and family. But at the same time, Joanna feels somehow less Joanna these days, and more Martha Stewart. No matter how hard she tries to mask her corporate success with pictures of family picnics and homemade chocolate chip cookies, we know the Gaines aren’t your average middle-class Texan family anymore. They’re a brand—and must embrace all the responsibilities that come with that success. After all, how can they do real estate, manage restaurants and bed and breakfasts, put together a national retail store brand, write books and magazine articles—and still, as Joanna writes in her latest magazine issue, take painting classes with their kids and wash dishes and care for farm animals and go out for relaxed dates on Friday night? Either the Gaines take “work-life balance” to godlike levels, or they cannot and are not doing it all.

It seems more likely that they’ve embraced the latter than that they’ve accomplished the former. Ending their HGTV show this year was a sign that Chip and Joanna still believe in limits, and in protecting both their family life and their image as small-town people. It’s certain that many of the everyday workings of the Magnolia machine—from restaurant to silos, Hearth + Hand to magazine editorializing—is happening apart from the direct influence and oversight of Chip and Joanna.

In one sense, that’s a good thing: it means Chip and Joanna are still the couple we connected with in 2013, the couple that loves spending time with their kids and observing family dinners. One hopes that, in delegating the corporate workings of their business, the Gaines are erring on the side of doing less and not more.

On the other hand, it means that Magnolia may eventually lose some of its personal feel and become a less Gaines-y brand. The couple has thus far managed to keep their personal touch on much, if not all, of their brand’s output. They’ve been vulnerable and open in ways that have enabled their empire to still, somehow, feel small. But this celebrity roller coaster could catapult the Gaines into ever-greater spheres of monetary and cultural stardom, distancing them from their original ethos—and from the fans who have loved them for it. If they’re to preserve the characteristics that made them famous in the first place, they may have to let that roller coaster run on without them, growing ever more detached as it swells.

If they do, I won’t be disappointed; in fact, the less Magnolia grows from here on out, the more I’ll continue to love Chip and Jo-Jo.

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. She’s written for The American ConservativeThe WeekNational Review, The Federalist, and The Washington Times, among others.

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14 Responses to What Happens When a Small-Town Family Goes Corporate?

  1. Greg says:

    Conservative rule number one: capitalism destroys everything authentic and meaningful.

  2. mrscracker says:

    Well, I’m sorry their products are offered through Target because I signed a petition not to shop there.

    I watch some of the home remodeling shows on that same network and the Gaines do a better job than most renovators, but generally it’s the same sort of look over and over again. Blow out the walls, build a kitchen “island”, etc.
    I like renovations that respect the integrity of the building and don’t make everything look like the 20teens. By the 2020’s it will look dated.

  3. JLF says:

    In what universe is Waco, Texas, with a population of 135,000 people considered a “small town”? Perhaps this, too, is part of the problem.

  4. geog says:

    135K isn’t terribly impressive in the western US when you consider how they delineate cities (endless annexation). I’m more interested in Waco’s population density. It’s about the same as Indepedence, MO.

  5. mrscracker says:

    Greg says:

    “Conservative rule number one: capitalism destroys everything authentic and meaningful.”
    ***********
    Well, it probably makes it accessible to more people. It’s a whole lot cheaper & easier to head to Target than to hire a private renovation or interior design consultation.

  6. jeff tomes says:

    Brilliant spoof.

  7. David J. White says:

    I live in Waco (about a mile from Hillcrest House), and I can’t overstate thr effect that Chip and Joanna Gaines have had on Waco. It has become a genuine tourist destination thanks to their show. People have been moving to Waco because of what they saw on tbe show. (My wife and I are glad we bought a house two years ago; real estate has been going up.) The Silos are constantly packed with tourists (I drive by them on the way to work at Baylor); the local Baptist churches charged visitors $10 to use their parking lot, and they make several thousand dollars per week from that. The Gaines’ various business ventures have spurred other development and investment. Last week they sponsored a marathonin Waco that drew 6,000 participants and even more spectators. City officials are worried that the end of the show will mean the end of the gravy train, but the Gaines’ efforts to diversify and expand their brand seems to be designed to maintain their visibility after the end of the show.

  8. Mark says:

    I don’t know who they are. I have not watched HGTV since they dumped the Benham Brothers from their pro-life and pro traditional marriage beleifs. HGTV is the religious bigots channel.

  9. Hammock says:

    Greg–maybe, but socialism definitely destroys everything authentic and meaningful too.

    As David J White points out, capitalism–more specifically, entrepreneurship–can do an enormous amount of good for a community

  10. mrscracker says:

    Mark says:

    “I don’t know who they are. I have not watched HGTV since they dumped the Benham Brothers from their pro-life and pro traditional marriage beleifs.”
    ************
    That was a shame. I heard somebody was trying that sort of tactic against the Gaines at one point. Maybe something their pastor had said.
    I don’t watch the Food Network much since they dropped Paula Dean.
    Witch hunts are ugly.

  11. H says:

    As an answer to your question, just ask Waco. The city has a love-hate relationship with the Gaines’. On the one hand, people love the employment opportunities and the fact that Waco is now known for something else besides an FBI massacre. On the other, we’ve seen the the Gaines’ expanding empire up close for years while everyone else in the country thinks Joanna milks goats and bakes biscuits for her kids every morning. (Not that there’s any moral imperative for her to do such things–it’s just that the reality is very different from perception. She’s the face and creative leader of a corporation. Do you think she has tons of time to bake?) On a personal level, the only Wacoans I know who’ve spoken negatively of the Gaines family personally are fellow creatives who also seem jealous of them; people I know who work closely with them love them genuinely as people with both flaws and good intentions alike.

    They seem like nice people. But judging from the corporate offices here in Waco, they’re far from homespun and I’m not sure people are always comfortable when they realize how much of homey image is branding.

  12. Funbud says:

    There was some talk stirred up about the Gaines due to their church’s beliefs/statements. And the fact that they’ve never had a same sex couple on the show, an outlier for HGTV. But it never got much traction.

    The Benham Brothers were a different story. Doubtless, HGTV was counting on their looks to lure in the women and lure in the gay men. But then…um, no. The Gaines’ church may be conservative, but the brothers were spouting off about it, which made them a harder sell.

  13. Beowulf says:

    I also live in Waco, and the impact on the city from Fixer Upper has truly been tremendous as David White points out. I have heard figures as high as 600,000 tourists a year. Certainly they are bringing in a ton of money, but not all the changes are good.

    Housing prices have increased dramatically. In the not so far past, you could buy a decent 3 bedroom house for 70-90k. I’d say you are looking at 130-190k now based on recent purchases by people I know. I of course understand that this is still cheap by national standards but keep in mind, Waco is a relatively poor city with a median household income of about $34,000 and a 27% poverty rate. https://datausa.io/profile/geo/waco-tx/

    Locals are being priced out of their own neighborhoods and this very week there have been hearings over the increasing property tax appraisals. Chip and Joanna do tremendous work on homes and I appreciate that, but their impact citywide might simply be making Waco a great place for non-locals to move. It is making home ownership for locals very difficult.

    Btw, the Gaines’s live out near Speegleville which is basically a country-style suburb. There are real farms and ranches out there, but it is mostly an extension of Waco which has about a quarter of a million people between Waco and the suburbs.

  14. Thrice A Viking says:

    JLF, I agree with you, that’s way bigger than a genuine small town. Geog, I agree with you too that Western cities are often ridiculously expansive. Still, 135 thousand in a little under 100 square miles is well over what a small town would have. A town of, say, ten thousand in three square miles might hike its population by a couple or three thousand by adding 100 square miles to its area, as the added territory would likely just be country homes. Very pleasant, in all likelihood, but not all that densely-populated. A few thousand, in fact, may be quite liberal.

    Part of the trouble, IMO, is our language. We seem to go straight from small town to big city, with no intermediate steps in between. At the very least, we should have big town and small city, if we make distinction between “town” and “city”, as we seem to be apt to do. A “medium” for both terms might be good as well.

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