Last week the Journal posted a story about the successes and failures of the Milwaukee Public Market. I have always wondered about the long-term sustainability of this place. Unlike most businesses that do all kinds of market research before opening a store in a new city, the Milwaukee Public market was started like most Milwaukee projects, out of envy. Someone saw Pike’s Place in Seattle and decided “we need to have that.” Now the operators are stuck trying to make something work that maybe shouldn’t have been built in the first place.
In this story the manager said that the Public Market will not ever be a food court. The problem with that statement is that is what it is primarily being used for and that is what most visitors want. Just ask the vendors what is selling and they will tell you that prepared foods are selling very well. (its in the JSonline article) Even Pike’s Place in Seattle has numerous restaurants, which undoubtedly helps to draw more traffic to the market.
I have probably been there 10-15 times and on the majority of those visits my primary purpose was to grab lunch or dinner. I rarely leave with more than 15-20 bucks of take-home products and typically the only thing I leave with is a full stomach. I have not bought any seafood from the fish monger. I have not purchased any meat from the butcher (I was kind of turned off when I asked them to special order hanger steak and they refused, claiming that they don’t take special orders). What kind of butcher doesn’t take special orders? Even corporate Pick n’ Save will take special orders. The produce is overpriced, so I avoid that as well and that gets to the root of their problem.
The cost of the building was probably pretty astronomical and thus rents are pretty high, resulting in higher costs for food for customers. This has kept the mom and pop vendors out of the market and outside under the bridge or scattered throughout the numerous farmer’s markets throughout the Milwaukee area. Why should I go to the market and pay more for produce that I could just as easily get at a farmers’ market at half the price? Just to feel good about supporting the market? Milwaukeeans don’t think like that.
I think as time goes on the market will need to adapt. They can stand up and declare that it will not be a food court, but can they hold that position over the next 2 years as they try to meet their goal to break even in year 3 or as other tenants move out? My guess is that the meat and seafood places are next to go, followed by the Ceriello’ Italian food place, though it is an east coast chain, so they may have some staying power. I prefer the great atmosphere at Glorioso’s on Brady and it seems that many others feel the same way. I think the produce stands will be ok and the Aladdin and Sushi A-Go-Go will continue to be popular. The cheese place is a perfect fit for the neighborhood and the market, so that will be fine as well. My other prediction is that they will try to attract some kind of traffic generator, like an upscale sit-down café/restaurant as they fail to attract more market vendors. I also think that their goal of having local/Wisconsin merchants only will have to be changed. You may see some chains in here sooner than you think.
According to a JSonline article last year “the target shopping base is 25% downtown residents and workers, 50% metro/suburban (roughly within a 10-mile radius) and 25% “other,” which includes tourists, festival-goers and so on” My problem with this formula is as follows: People from the burbs are not going to make the trek downtown just for the Public Market after their first visit. They are more likely to combine a stop at the market with other stuff downtown like a Bucks game, a lakefront festival, a street festival, shopping, or a spa appointment. Therein lies the problem, unless the market is the last stop on the trip, people are not going to stock up on meat and produce. These visitors will likely grab something to eat at the market and may buy one or two things, but not a whole lot more. Tourists are certainly not going to buy a lot of stuff here either…maybe some Wisconsin cheese, but again they are more likely to eat lunch here and leave.
So here I sit at my desk spouting off about the market. I don’t want this to seem like I take any joy in seeing businesses fail here. Just the opposite. I have been excited about this place for years and I really want it to succeed, but I am a realist and I think the market needs to be as well. All businesses know that they need to adapt when their original formula isn’t working. So here are some things that I would try and do if I were running the market:
I would take a cue from Metro Market and Whole Foods and offer more prepared foods.
I would also encourage the wine merchant to turn into more of a wine bar and seller, maybe even have some local microbrews. Set up a small bar so people can linger around and buy a craft brew or wine. They should have more tastings and wine events and try out the vending cards that you are seeing at newer wine stores. You buy a pre-paid card and can sample many different wines. Maybe have some wine and cheese events with the cheese merchant, that would likely drum up sales for both vendors.
I would capitalize on the successes over the past year. It appears that the sushi place is popular so why no make it a bit larger and have a sit-down sushi bar? Maybe work out something like they have at Chelsea Market in New York where the sushi place and the seafood place are joined together and you can buy fresh seafood or order some sushi and some other seafood dishes like chowders and lobster rolls.
You need more special events to bring people down here. The charm has kind of worn off and the casual visitors need some kind of encouragement to get them down there. Maybe have more of the Battle of Milwaukee Chefs events that were at Cathedral Square this summer. Have a fall and winter version at the market and publicize it heavily.
Try to get a weekly show on the Milwaukee Food On Demand channel. Have a spotlight on each vendor, have more cooking demonstrations like they did when the place first opened, develop their own Milwaukee Market Cooking Show.
Try to partner up with more local restaurants for special events. People like to interact with chefs from places they like to visit. I think they should get prominent chefs and wine and beer makers to have special dinners where the upstairs is set up like a restaurant and the guest chef or wine or beer maker presents different courses and pairings.
Maybe try and get someone like Fein Brothers or The Cooking Store to open up a mini cookware shop.