Economy & Business
12:55 pm
Mon February 27, 2012

Public Market Thrives in Nationwide Trend

If you have visited the Public Market in downtown Milwaukee recently, you may have discovered a lively place. Tables filled with customers eating or drinking and others standing in line to purchase items. The Market was not always crowded; in fact at one point it was on the brink of closing. As WUWM’s Marti Mikkelson reports, the trend is a growing one across the country.

Public Market
Customers peruse the deli at the West Allis Cheese and Sausage Shoppe.

Walk into the Milwaukee Public Market any day and it’s bustling. Merchants behind their counters sell everything from burritos to baked potatoes. Arthur Ircink just purchased a bowl of soup. He says he’s been coming here nearly every day for the past few years and now notices he has plenty of company.

“It’s getting busier, there’s more business moving into the Third Ward. There’s a great selection here. I think they did a good job on constructing the layout of this place and bringing it back,” Ircink says.

…bringing it back from the edge of failure. The place was about a month shy of closing, with vendor after vendor leaving. Tim Collins says he was plenty nervous. He owns the St. Paul Fish Company, one of the original tenants when the Milwaukee Public Market opened in October of 2005. Public markets sell fresh, local food, but Collins says when Milwaukee’s opened, it was set up simply as a grocery store.
 

The oyster bar is a big draw at the St. Paul Fish Company.
The oyster bar is a big draw at the St. Paul Fish Company.

“They thought it would be fresh, local foods, but more of a retail market, less cooked, less ready foods but that’s not what the market demanded,” Collins says.

What patrons were demanding, according to Collins, was fresh, local food they could either take home or sit down and eat at the market. When new management took over in 2007, it gave vendors the green light to begin serving prepared foods and beverages. Collins says sales soared when he put in tables, a lunch counter and the company’s signature feature - an oyster bar.

“It’s just taken off and oysters have become very popular. Now we sell five, six thousand oysters per week. Lots of oyster shucking,” Collins says.

Collins says the public market seems to have grown in tandem with the neighborhood. When the place opened in 2005, other businesses in the Third Ward were scarce and there was little foot traffic. Now, the corner of St. Paul Avenue and Broadway is the busiest area of town, according to Ron San Felippo. He’s president of the Business Improvement District that took over the market in 2007.

“We’ve improved the gross sales. We’re continuing to tweak it, we’re continuing to make changes to keep it from getting stale. Part of what we see as a public market is what we call organized chaos. We want it extremely clean but we don’t want things all lined up in neat little rows. We want people to feel like every time they come, it might be a little different experience,” San Felippo says.

Yet, San Felippo credits the original operators with selling the city on the concept. It took $10 million to build the market – both private and public money. He says it is now self-sufficient and one of several across the country to experience resurgence. Paul Steinke says the pendulum is swinging. He manages the Reading Terminal Market in downtown Philadelphia.

“It used to be that most food shopping was done in public markets in every city in the country. Then in the early part of the 20th century, supermarkets took off and grew, took market share and many public markets closed. Philadelphia held on to ours. It came close to closing but we kept it going and today, public markets are growing because of a renewed interest in local foods,” Steinke says.

In Milwaukee’s case, it also seemed to help that its market became a destination. The city of Boston is now developing a public market, and when it asked companies to bid on the project in December, it cited Milwaukee’s as a successful venture.