Tasty gain: Major Milwaukee food hall coming

Jackie and Sara Woods’ doughnuts and breakfast sandwiches pop up here and there in the Milwaukee area. It’s been that way around eight months.

“I like to keep life simple,” Jackie says.

Facebook followers (@DonutMonsterMKE) know when to find them at Hawthorne Coffee Roasters on Howell Avenue, Central Standard Craft Distillery on Clybourn Street, and Weeds, a home/garden shop in Cedarburg.

People pay attention to the business – Donut Monster – because flavors are unconventional (think Salted Chocolate, White Chocolate Passionfruit, Blueberry Cheesecake). Doughnuts begin with a brioche dough. One popular base for sandwiches is a from-scratch English muffin.

Jackie’s culinary resume includes chef de cuisine at Ardent, a Milwaukee fine dining restaurant. His serious quest to create the perfect doughnut began as a way to quell Sara’s cravings during pregnancy.

Soon their lives get more complicated.

Donut Monster is one of an estimated 18 food vendors that will occupy the 35,000-square-foot 3rd Street Market Hall when it opens in the former Grand Avenue mall in downtown Milwaukee in early 2020.

A food hall goes beyond the typical shopping mall food court. Food stalls tend to be ethnically diverse and operated by local folks not affiliated with a national brand. The setting is a go-to destination, not a place to slurp or nosh in the middle of a shopping spree.

Eating is one big reason to linger at a food hall, but this one is designed as a community gathering space too. That means a central, open bar for parents to chill as their children play. It’s about sipping a craft beer while working on a laptop. It may be about ping-pong, bocce ball courts and dart throwing too.

This food hall project is Milwaukee’s biggest and part of an urban trend nationwide. Forbes magazine calls the food hall a new way for chefs to make their mark without opening their own restaurant or bakery.

Consider it a new option to the food truck and less of a risk than opening your own business.

“It started as an amenity for the building but is turning into one of the top food halls in the country,” asserts Omar Shaikh, SURG Restaurant Group president, who is guiding food hall development.

“Many other food halls are an in-and-out experience. We aim to make this like a mini village. … We are extremely passionate about what we’re putting together.”

Redevelopment plans for the Grand Avenue, which opened as an indoor shopping center in the early 1980s, include apartments, office space and a fitness center too. Besides food stalls with open kitchens, a banquet area and a beer hall are planned.

Shaikh and others studied 30 food halls nationwide before developing this one. He says it is somewhat patterned after DeKalb Market Hall in Brooklyn, N.Y., home to 40 vendors, plus bingo and trivia nights, frequent entertainment and other events.

“We can help build a brand,” Shaikh says, of chefs who are being approached to be part of The Avenue’s food hall. That is what happened with Donut Monster, and Jackie Woods says the timing is good. The food hall will replace the Woods’ pop-up work.

Ryan Oschmann of Bass Bay Brewhouse in Muskego says he and colleagues were approached too. “We had planned to go somewhere with our Milk Can concept,” he explains. That business specialty is burgers and frozen custard. It will be paired with fancy pastries and other desserts made by Milk Bottle Bakery.

Think beyond meat slingers and cake frosters: Menus may seem simple, but the people behind these brands have culinary training that includes work with master chefs in France.

Follow the food hall project’s progress at avenuemke.com.

Crossroads Collective, the first food hall in Milwaukee, opened in late 2018. It is compact and next to the Oriental Theatre. The six vendors sell falafel to tacos to barbecue. crossroadscollectivemke.com

The Sherman Phoenix business park in Milwaukee is transforming one of the city’s most challenged areas; violence erupted there in 2016, after a fatal police shooting. A major part of the rebirth involves a community space for art exhibits, events and simply congregating. It also is a business incubator with food and other vendors. shermanphoenix.com

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Last: Here are three of my favorite food halls in Chicago.

Latinicity, 108 N. State St.: On the third floor of Block 37, a mix of boutiques and cafes, are eight food stations with fare that includes Peruvian-style stir fry, torta and mollete sandwiches. Add $3 shots of tequila and $6 margaritas from 4-6 p.m., except Sunday. Lots of seating faces a wall of windows, to peek onto the Windy City at work and play. latinicity.com

Chicago French Market, 131 N. Clinton St.: Known as the city’s original food hall and featuring more than 30 vendors, many selling ethnic specialties. It opened in 2009 and was designed to resemble a European market. Find it near Union Station and Ogilvie Transportation Station (for regional Metra trains). frenchmarketchicago.com

Eataly, 43 E. Ohio St.: Immerse yourself in all things authentically Italian, polenta to Neapolitan pizza, focaccia to tiramisu. Shop, sip, nibble and linger in this double-story food emporium with many areas to dine, behind a counter or with white linens. Chefs use ingredients from the mega-store’s markets and lead cooking classes too. eataly.com