Milwaukee’s Gatekeepers for Local Food
There are many versions of the American dream. Some entail fabulous wealth and prosperity. Some involve personal happiness and wellness. Some are simply about feeding people.
Amid a steadily increasing focus on local food and sustainable production across the nation, an increasing number of entrepreneurs are getting serious about their passion for food by finding ways to share it with others.
In Milwaukee, everything from ice cream, jam, jelly, sausage, baked goods, beer, mustard, pickles, sauces, cheese and salami to a host of ethnic foods have migrated from home kitchens, basements and garages to farmers markets, grocery store shelves and restaurant menus. Napkin brainstorms become business plans. Personal stories morph into marketing strategies. Family recipes become regional favorites.
These local food products are more than just sustenance. For the artisans that make them, they’re a way of life. They aren’t always full-time jobs, but they are often full-time pursuits, with kneading, canning, butchering, mixing, tasting and sharing happening at all hours and despite myriad other life demands. Frequently, the coaxing and prodding of family, friends, neighbors and other advocates can provide inspiration for these would-be purveyors to seek broader exposure for their foods.
What is usually invisible to casual and committed foodies alike, however, is the process by which these local products transform from a tangle of good intentions to a saleable item. To get there, producers must win over those who are both their tallest hurdle and greatest ally: the decision-makers in retail, restaurant and farmers market environments who serve as the gatekeepers to Milwaukee food glory.
Inherent in their respective roles is the notion that local gatekeepers keep their fingers on the pulse of what great new products are being offered. They decide what ends up on their shelves, in their stalls and on their menus — and by extension the consciousness of the local consumer.
This commitment entails a reciprocal effort by producers to learn the vagaries of safe food preparation, local and state regulations, marketing, packaging, distribution, upscaling, and perhaps most importantly, building relationships with those who have the power—and desire—to make dreams come true.
The Farmers Market Manager
In its comparatively short four years of existence, the Wauwatosa Farmers Market has become one of the largest outdoor seasonal markets in or around Milwaukee, with 35-40 weekly vendors selected by an all-volunteer board of residents committed to proving a community venue for local food.
Becca Kitelinger, who until mid-summer this year served as manager of the market and remains on the organization’s board of directors, said the process of becoming a market vendor is largely self-guided.
“It starts with an application that tells us basic information about you and your product—where it’s grown, made, processed, and so on,” she said. “Then we evaluate all the applications to ensure applicants have met our qualifications, that they’re licensed, and that we have a certain mix of vendor types. We try to stay at around 80% farmers and 20% local food businesses, plus a once-monthly Maker’s Market with other types of vendors in addition to food-centric ones.”
Kitelinger said she does her best to give everyone the information they need to know, but recommends they direct questions to the Wauwatosa Health Department, which is better equipped to suggest appropriate resources. Though the Tosa Market has a waiting list of people who want to sell their products, doing things the right way almost always pays dividends.
One market success story has been SA Braai LLC. South African native and second-generation butcher Matthew Devan and his wife Wendi own and operate the sausage purveyor, which started selling its handmade boerewors, or South African bratwurst, part-time at the Tosa Market earlier this year.
After their first day at the market, the response was overwhelmingly positive. Wendi sent an email to Metcalfe’s Sentry, located less than a mile away, and heard back almost immediately. The company, strong advocates of the market and local products, would soon sell boerewors.
“If you want to do it and you’re motivated, you can find information,” said Devan. “The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture is amazing. There’s a specialized group of people that deal with meat who were such a huge resource for us, acting as consultants on product development, packaging and more. They truly were advocates. I was floored.”
In addition to some key local food mentors, the Devans were assisted by agents from the Wauwatosa Health Department, who told them what they needed to know to be able to get licensed to sell their products.
Devan’s advice for someone just starting out? “Protect yourself from a health code and legal perspective,” she said. “Have insurance. Build your network. Find mentors. Know your strengths and weaknesses. And get educated.”
In order to track down, meet with, evaluate and sometimes mentor local food producers, Zach Hepner, local purchasing specialist at Outpost Natural Foods Cooperative, puts on a lot of miles.
“I visit a lot of farmers markets, attend industry, food and networking events, and get out in the community to let people know that Outpost is looking for vendors,” he said. Because of the cooperative’s loyal customer base and high standards, he has to be persnickety.
“Our customers have a certain level of trust in Outpost, so we have to pay attention to things like taste, presentation, labeling and more,” he said. “For instance, if a product label says ‘organic,’ it needs to be certified organic, or it can’t say organic at all. Certain conditions need to be met in order for us to bring a product in.”
Once a product is accepted, Outpost commits to giving it a minimum of six months in the store, Hepner said. “We may change the way it’s displayed, or where it’s located, or how we demo it, to make sure our customers know it’s there. But we give everyone a fair shot.”
This commitment to the success of its vendors has led to fruitful partnerships.
“One of the first vendors we worked with, Milwaukee Pizza Company, is a great example,” said Hepner. “(They) make a fantastic, high-quality frozen pizza that really tastes great. In a saturated market, they were able to stand out and I think even they’ve been surprised by their success.”
Hepner said there have been plenty of local artisans Outpost has helped along the road to success, and in a number of cases, it’s allowed them to take their products to other retailers, too. “We’re not afraid of that collaboration, since we want our vendors to be successful and we want to make sure good food is accessible to everybody,” he said.
Executive Chef Dan Jacobs of Wolf Peach, recently voted best restaurant in Milwaukee by the readers of OnMilwaukee.com, is both an avid user of and advocate for local products, though he said they can require legwork to find. He explained how his desire to showcase the best of what’s around can sometimes mean chasing it down first.
“70-percent of the time, we’re seeking out the local products we want,” he said. “When one chef finds something, he tells another chef, and it runs like a game of telephone. We share info on what good new products are out there. Say we’re looking for a pig producer; we have to search it out. Who can raise enough pigs for us to get one every week or two? Who can keep up with that demand? We look out for each other.”
This spirit of collaboration among chefs mirrors that of local food producers who rely on advice shared by mentors, officials and others to grow or improve their operations.
“The chef community in Milwaukee is very different than anything I’ve ever experienced,” said Jacobs. “There’s a sense of camaraderie. We hang out. We get drinks together. We eat at each other’s restaurants.”
Another way chefs band together is to purchase an allotment of a product they may not be able to get in smaller quantities on their own, such as cheese. Jacobs cited LaClare Farms, a goat cheese producer based in Chilton.
“We have to order enough to make it worthwhile for them to ship, say, 60 pounds,” he said. “So we’ll buy in with two other restaurants and split the cheese, shipping and handling.” In this instance, LaClare gets a larger order and has three loyal customers instead of one.
Jacobs said he tends to find new food sources by visiting farmers markets and talking to vendors. At the end of a growing season, for instance, farmers will ask what products chefs might want for the following season. Jacobs said he plans to suggest amaranth leaves for next year, to use in sautés and other dishes.
“These kinds of interactions keep the focus on local farmers, local food, and local food producers,” said Kitelinger.
Despite the willingness of artisans and gatekeepers to work together toward a mutually beneficial end, there are some roadblocks that underscore larger issues like business education, accessibility and funding.
Sara Wong, owner of Milwaukee Mustard Company, has met with or been contacted by local caterers, restaurants, bars and co-ops like Outpost about wholesale sales of her four varieties of handcrafted, locally-sourced mustard, but without access to a commercial kitchen, she’s not able to get licensure.
She falls under what’s known as the “pickle bill,” a state law allowing the limited sales of home-canned foods without a license. Products such as jams, jellies, applesauce, pickled vegetables, salsa and more can only be sold from the producer directly to consumers at venues like farmers markets, and only up to $5,000 in sales annually (a bill currently in the Legislature would raise this ceiling to $10,000).
Despite the fact that Wong has identified several commercial spaces she could use, either distance or cost have been prohibitive. It’s a common problem among food entrepreneurs trying to bring their products to market.
As she seeks solutions, Wong has relied on the strength of the relationships she’s developed with other local artisans and advocates to bolster her knowledge of business practices and to improve her craft. Participating in a local resource fair also helped her gain access to resources and people that offered help.
Brian Waterman, who with his wife Julie owns Indulgence Chocolatiers, said their company has grown not only in terms of its product line, but also in how it has approached the business challenges associated with the food industry. They operate two retail locations—in Shorewood and in Walker’s Point, where they also have a commercial kitchen, storage and office space—and have built a solid wholesale business.
Having given up his full-time job as an attorney to focus on growing the business strategically, Waterman isn’t the prototype of a local food producer. He also has more business experience than most, a trait that balances Julie’s gift for the food side of their enterprise.
“I don’t know the first thing about making chocolate,” said Waterman. “It’s all my wife. My interest is in the business aspect. Let’s say you make cupcakes. You could make the greatest cupcakes in the world, and you could make lots of them, but if you can’t figure out the business component, you can’t make a livelihood out of it. Those benchmarks—how you figure out regulations, how you get commercial kitchen space, how you get stuff on store shelves, that’s what it’s all about if you’re going to make a career out of it.”
Waterman’s enthusiasm for business led him to start the Wisconsin Artisan Food Producers Association, dedicated to promoting and supporting artisan food and beverage producers statewide. Its very existence is proof that local food producers’ greatest resource is one another.
These talented artisans also have the ability to influence perhaps the most important food decision-makers they’ll interact with—the gatekeepers. As every restaurant menu is created or changed to reflect the seasons, as every outdoor market gears up for peak season, and as every retailer evaluates its product mix, consideration must be given to which local food products will make the cut. Despite the importance of these decisions, the process isn’t as ominous as it might seem.
“Everyone wants to help point you in the right direction,” said Wong. “I underestimated how passionate people are about local products. I knew it was important, and it’s important to me, but I thought it was a smaller niche than it is. People are passionate about Milwaukee. It goes beyond people wanting to know where their food comes from. It’s local pride.”