Mount Horeb Artisan Food Emporium, by Matt Geiger
Nearly four years after the idea was initially floated in Mount Horeb, an artisan food emporium is just months away from opening its doors to the public.
The facility, which is being spearheaded by the Southwestern Wisconsin Community Action Program, will likely bring together five tenants, all of whom are part of southern Wisconsin’s booming craft food scene, under one roof at 119 South Second Street.
Those behind the project say to expect makers of hard apple cider, pickled vegetables, ice cream, and even a retail eatery once the emporium opens in 2018.
“The whole idea is to stimulate the local artisan food industry,” explained Wally Orzechowski, executive director of the Dodgeville-based Southwestern Wisconsin Community Action Program. “I think in the long run the idea is to be able to point to this; to be able to replicate this in the private sector. We want to see that grow, a lot.”
Orzechowski, who lives in Mount Horeb, described the action program as “essentially an anti-poverty organization,” which works to create vibrant, sustainable economic stimulus for communities. He says southern Wisconsin’s small-scale food producers are rich and diverse in the products they bring to market, but they are also, almost by their very nature, not connected with many consumers who are hungry for their meats, cheeses, vegetables and other foods.
“They are artists,” he observed.
Facilities like the one in Mount Horeb were dreamed up to help bring their ‘art’ to the masses.
“This area is defined by the fact that we have a lot of specialty food producers, and they are all close to Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago, and even the Twin Cities,” said Orzechowski. He estimates those major Midwestern urban centers are home to nearly 20 million people.
The building, which was most recently the Zalucha art studio, had undergone an ambitious overhaul in recent months thanks to Schlecht Retail Ventures, LLC, which purchased it earlier this year. After fixing the building, Schlecht Retail Ventures is providing the Southwestern Wisconsin Community Action Program with a long-term (20-year) lease, according to Orzechowski. The building is situated just off the Military Ridge Bike Trail, on the other side of which Duluth Trading Company is currently constructing its new corporate headquarters. Duluth’s principal owner and executive chairman, Steve Schlecht, owns Schlecht Retail Ventures, LLC, with his wife, Marianne.
“I think he’s doing this to have a neat place for the community, something nice next to the [Duluth] building, and somewhere the employees there can go,” said Orzechowski.
Schlecht downplayed his role, saying in an email to the Mail that his involvement “has solely been in the substantial remodel of the building as landlord and in leasing it to SWCAP.”
Schlecht added that the Mount Horeb Area Economic Development Corporation (MHAEDC) has also played an integral role in getting the project off the ground.
“The MHAEDC has been a part of the Artisan Food Emporium since the onset and we are thrilled to see the progress that SWCAP has made to date,” commented Carol McChesney Johnson, executive director of the corporation. “The concept of the food emporium has been enthusiastically received not only by the Village of Mount Horeb, but also [by] surrounding communities. It will be a tremendous economic gain to the community and we are proud to be a part of the process.”
An earlier proposal, which would have created something similar at Viking Plaza on the other side of town, failed to materialize back in 2014. Early talks there included Sjolinds, Black Earth Meats founder Bartlett Durand, and an Alaskan salmon CSA business, among others.
But while the time and location were not quite right then and there, the idea immediately generated interest and enthusiasm across the greater Mount Horeb community.
Brad Murphy, who was head of the Mount Horeb Area Economic Development Corporation at the time, said an emporium could “bring foodies out of the woodwork.”
“It’s really a matter of taking local businesses and helping them grow,” said Orzechowski. “The idea is to create conditions for them to thrive and grow, and for artisan foods to thrive in the area. This building is just part of a bigger strategy.”
The Mount Horeb Artisan Food Emporium will also be part of a University of Wisconsin study regarding the viability of such projects.
Orzechowski, who is still working to finalize deals with the various tenants, said he hopes the 12,000-square-foot building will open to customers “around March,” but he cautioned that such an opening could “come in increments” due to the complex nature of the project.