The Permanent Indoor Farmers Market We Want is Not in Milwaukee

October 1, 2009 at 8:51 am

Rob Gardner

It’s been a while since I’ve taken the short car ride north to Milwaukee, and I forgot how much appeal I find in the Cream City.  I love how Milwaukee is mostly like some version of Chicago caught in amber.  There is still a city hall, more Chicago School than anything in Chicago hugging its triangle location.  The home office of Northwestern Mutual goes only so far into the sky.  The restaurant where we had dinner, Coquette Cafe, feels un-contrivedly urbane the way about nothing does in Chicago.  In fact to seal the experience, when we were leaving, an older couple arrived, he in blue blazer and creased pants, she of just so, silver hair.  Man, I want us to look like them some day.  The one thing that did not impress me this weekend in Milwaukee, the Public Market.

Chad Rubel in his first post for the Local Beet asks, “wanted: one year-round permanent indoor farmers market in Chicago.”  As an example of what he wants (and I want a market too), he cites Milwaukee’s Public Market, “where they sell everything from spices, baked goods, ready-to-heat treats, and once again, mustard.”  The problem with the Milwaukee Public Market is, that’s about all it sells. 

When the market opened a few years ago, the organizers really had in their minds (I believe) a market that would serve the shopping needs of the citizens of Milwaukee.  It would be like La Boqueria of Barcelona let alone El Mercado Lado Oeste of Cleveland.  For one thing, the area around it, the (“Historic”) Third Ward was moving from an area of river warehouses and light manufacturing to one of loft living.  They would need a place to shop.  For another, well citizens from all over the sides of Milwaukee would be attracted to fresh and outstanding foods as well as farmer’s markets on Saturday and Sunday.  I believe the Market tried.

The market opened with two butchers, one more focused on the reds, the other the whites.  We especially liked the white one, who offered things like stewing hens not so seem much otherwise.  A stand offered organic fruits and vegetables and as much of that as local as they could–we were buying local produce there well after the time of year when any store in the Chicago area had any (this was pre-Cassie’s Green Grocer).  There was an array of Wisconsin goods from the Door; from the state’s bees and the state’s maple trees.  None of those places remain.  I cannot say that there is no meat left in the market, as one vendor offers a few cuts of beef, but this plastic wrapped versions have that fake bright red color of supermarket meat.  I used to ogle the prime chuck roasts.  The other day, I shuffled quickly along.  The market is just not a place for grocery shopping anymore.  Moreover, it’s been a few years, at least, since farmers gathered outside the market on Sundays.  I wonder what the Saturdays are like now.

The market is much turned over to the kind of cutesy perfected by the Rouse Corporation.  There’s a mini-margarita stand, with the kind of churning vat of frozen drink one gets on vacations.  The candy store that held a discreet place on the west wall is now front and center, looking garish and touristy.  There is a wine bar that looks like it was plucked straight from Whole Foods.  I cannot say bad things, however, about the fish shop that moved into the east corner as the glory days of the market were already fading.  With a stainless counter and a mix of fresh and sea water creatures, this place does a good job of re-creating timeless.  I cannot also say bad things about the cheese shop, who has been there from the start.  This has always been as good a place as any (outside the Dane County Market) to sample Wisconsin cheeses.  It did not let us down the other day.

We did, however, get let down, by another long time favorite.  C. Adams bakes up all sorts of gooey, buttery, Wisconsin-y treats.  Infrequent visits to Milwaukee and the Market always made it hard to decide which treat to get.  With the last visit so far away, we went with two classics: the morning glory bun and the cheese danish.  I bet these things met their past examples…if.  If we had them a day earlier.  On a Sunday morning, they tasted just a day too late.  We had never had less than a rapture with C. Adams pastries, and I guess the lesser experience echoed the overall lesser experience with the Milwaukee Public Market.  

About a year ago, a natural grocery store called Good Harvest moved into old industrial space next to the market.  I imagine that some planners thought this would be a good replacement for would be shoppers, shoppers on the prowl for food not just frolic.  I’ll just say, no.

Wanted: one year-round permanent indoor farmers market in Chicago.  One hell of a good sentiment.  Just right now, do not look to Milwaukee for inspiration. 

(On the bright side, we will be reporting much on the expected soon opening of the Metra Market in the west Loop.  Maybe it will meet our dreams).



  1. Pete says:

    We just discovered the Milwaukee Public Market a few weeks ago, and loved it. No, it’s not a grocery or farmers market by any stretch of the imagination. It is, however, an interesting and unique experience. And from everything I’ve read about Metra Market, it sounds like it will be very similar to Milwaukee Public Market – so don’t get your hopes up too much.

  2. Rob,

    The initial butchers couldn’t make it-too good to be true. Rupina’s, the current meat purveyor is a long established Milwaukee area family owned operation well known for its quality (red) meat! Likewise, not enough fresh produce could be sold for the initial operators to stay in business. C. Adams won’t sell anything a day old-not even as day old! She destroys what doesn’t sell every day. She can’t make all that she could sell.

    Margarita Paradise is also a local family owned operation long famous for their “secret” margarita mix-but their main emphysis is their outstanding food offerings, margarita’s notwithstanding. Did you try a taco? Or notice their fresh fruits and veggies for sale? Thief Wine wouldn’t be caught dead in Whole Foods- The personal service that Phil and Amy give is outstanding.

    Despite best efforts we found that a “traditional” public market couldn’t make it and had to evolve into something that can. Most of the initial offerings still are there in one form or another and the rest is what we’ve found people want to buy. It’s not exactly what was originally envisioned, but it can stay open and prosper this way! And even in this economy, our gross sales numbers keep increasing.

    I hope that Metra Market can pull off what you’re looking for. In the meantime, with the above in mind we hope you’ll come back and sample us again. Thanks. Ron San Felippo, Chair, City of Milwaukee Business Improvement District #2 (owns and operates the Milwaukee Public Market)

RSS Feed for comments on this post