Midtown Global Market once was a cutting-edge incubator for entrepreneurs of color. But the challenges have piled up, and some vendors are worried about its future. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

When Midtown Global Market opened in the former Sears building on East Lake Street in June 2006, there was nothing quite like it in Minnesota. 

The market’s focus on incubating businesses owned by people of color and creating a thriving food hall environment was widely hailed as a step forward for South Minneapolis. As the market hit its stride five-10 years ago, it became a natural gathering place for neighborhood residents, foodies, and curious visitors looking for a cosmopolitan taste of Minneapolis.

But the market is now facing challenges bigger than any it has ever faced. Stalls are empty, the neighborhood has been rocked by the George Floyd uprising, and the market manager position is vacant. Foot traffic throughout the pandemic has been down 75 percent.  At the same time, other food halls are offering stiff competition. Markets ranging from posh and diverse spots like The Market at Malcolm Yards and Graze Provisions + Libations to grassroots spots like Hmongtown Marketplace and Mercado Central offer visitors a range of choices that Midtown Global Market must strive to match. These alternate venues offer new food businesses a wide range of possible locations. 

The market has put a positive face on its prospects by focusing on events programming and new growth. Its plans for the future include a beauty node offering grooming services slated for the end of 2022, the newly established Indigenous Food Lab by Sean Sherman, and an ancient grains culinary center. But even as the market touts its plans for expansion, some vendors express frustration with the market’s leadership and anxiety about its future.

‘I’ve seen a lot of failure here’

Conditions at the market have put some of its vendors at odds with its parent organizations – the non-profit Neighborhood Development Center (NDC) and the Cultural Wellness Center – and their complicated funding model.

“They seem to do better when the businesses fail,” said Kevin Hannigan, the owner of The Produce Exchange. Hannigan’s business was the first to sign a lease at the market, and from his perspective, the market is at a historic low point. “From the beginning, they have not had the ability to attract the best of the best,” he said. “Most of the people who opened here were gone within a few years.” Hannigan added that while landing the Indigenous Food Lab is a “huge win,” he’s not optimistic overall.

From Kevin Hannigan’s perspective, the market is at a historic low point. Hannigan is the owner of The Produce Exchange, the first business to sign a lease when the market opened. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

“I’ve seen a lot of failure here, and they’re still raising a lot of money,” said Hannigan. “And they’re using our statistics to do it. They used to fundraise and blow their horn about how much money they’ve raised, and then there’s no budget! … We’ve had five businesses come and go in the last five years. They fail, but they still keep getting money.”

One of the core challenges facing the market, acknowledged by everyone working in the space, is the COVID-19-related departure of the 3,000-3,500 Allina Health employees working at the company’s corporate headquarters Midtown Commons. These employees were at the heart of the market’s business, browsing its stalls for lunch, and catering meetings and other events with food from their favorite vendors. 

Allina says that it has no immediate plans to bring its employees back to the Commons. The company said it “will continue to evaluate what the future work state at Allina Commons and employee volume will look like.”

The Waiting-for-Godot approach to Allina, said Soleil Ramirez of the Venezuelan restaurant Arepa Bar, is a key part of the market’s current shortcomings. “They’re always saying: ‘Allina is coming back! Allina is coming back!’ That’s all they say.”

NDC President Renay Dossman countered by noting that “the relationship with Allina is as strong as ever. It’s not transactional with Allina, and MGM, it’s relational.”

 “Allina has made donations, and actually the doctors came together and raised some money to help right after the uprising, to help the entrepreneurs inside the market,” Dossman said. “We’re actually in the process right now of working with Allina — they’re giving some discretionary income to do lunches or whatever, we’re doing a program to deliver lunches and some more catering type things to help some of the businesses in the market.”

Searching for a clear channel

The departure in 2021 of market manager Earlsworth “Baba” Letang has created a void in day-to-day communications that some vendors describe as frustrating.

“Since the moment I signed the paperwork, just to answer an email, it was two months,” said Ramirez, adding that maintenance at her restaurant has been a particular challenge.

 “Since I opened the restaurant, I don’t have hot water,” she said. “I signed a contract with them, I have a lot of problems with the stall, and I say: ‘I’m not going to put in a penny of this, because you’re supposed to give me this space perfect. I [should] have my electricity working, my water working… I cannot even do the dishes to the norms of the health department because I don’t even have hot water.'”

Soleil Ramirez opened Arepa Bar in January 2021. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal 2021

Hannigan also expressed frustration with cleanliness and facilities maintenance. “We’ve got emails going back years with the type of issues we’ve been having,” said Hannigan. “They’ve always stood on the idea that they’re not running this place to be a profit center. They’re a nonprofit, and that’s fine. But you have to compete. You have to clean it and make it really welcoming to the guests, or they’re not going to come.”

Hannigan said it’s hard to argue that the market is still relevant. “We’re not getting young people in here like we used to,” he said. “We’re missing a lot of the convenient aspects, like an all-star bakery… ” (The high profile Salty Tart left the Market in 2018.)

“A lot of money has been wasted, a lot of time has been wasted, a lot of people have been hurt here.”

Dossman responded that, if anything, management over-communicates. “We have people who are on site in the market talking to the entrepreneurs all the time. We have monthly meetings where, you know, we’ll have some of the same people who always show up, and some people who don’t.”

It’s more than communications, said Ramirez, it’s transparency. “They don’t want to explain where all the money they’re receiving from grants is going,” Ramirez said.

Not all vendors report frustration with the market. For Anthony Simmons, co-owner of the newly founded Soul to Soul restaurant, the experience overall has been a positive one. “We’ve had a great experience working with NDC,” said Simmons. “The things that we wish we would have thought about our business and the help we needed to get it started in different areas — it actually was a blessing for us to have them. They made sure we had what we needed and understood what we were doing.”

Fighting for the future

Whatever challenges the Market faces as it moves forward, it will have some powerful allies in its corner. Jason Chavez, the newly elected city council member for Ward 9, noted “It’s a melting pot of our city, it’s very reflective of our ward, and I want to make sure that it thrives and it’s here for years to come.”

That diversity, said Dossman, is the market’s key differentiator. “[The market] can’t be replicated because it’s the people, and the shared experiences of where they come from, and their different countries and cultures,” she said. “The way [the entrepreneurs] come together and their resiliency is something that I have never witnessed before. We have a secret sauce, and the secret sauce is the entrepreneurs we support. Those immigrant entrepreneurs, those Black and Latina entrepreneurs we support, the Indigenous entrepreneur we support, all under one roof.”

Dossman argues that the market’s future is bright, current challenges notwithstanding. “I feel really hopeful for the future of the market. I think there’s been a lot of things — we had a finance committee meeting today — there have been a lot of obstacles that have come our way. But with the support of the community and people who supported the market 15 years ago, coming together again to support the market so that we can keep the door open, fills me with a sense of pride and hope – and for sure gratitude.”

James Norton is the founding editor of the Heavy Table, a culinary newsletter backed by Patreon subscribers. He and his wife, photographer Becca Dilley, are the co-authors of The Master Cheesemakers of...