Now Fully Operational, Downtown Market Gears Up for Business

Locavores, slow-foodies and those of refined palate take note: the indoor portion of Grand Rapids' gleaming new Downtown Market is officially open.

Well, unofficially-officially open. The indoor market held a "soft open" this Monday, to be followed by a proper grand opening ceremony next Monday, Labor Day, Sept. 2. Still, the "soft opening" came with most of the trappings of an opening gala: a 9 a.m. ribbon-cutting ceremony, droves of eager patrons, and an almost-full slate of operating vendors.
So far, the indoor portion of the market features 18 retailers, including a fair-trade coffee seller (Simpatico), a handmade ice cream seller (Love's), a kettle corn specialist (Dorothy and Tony's), and a lot more.

There are chocolates and sweets, local produce, wines and pairing dishes at Aperitivo, and an intimidating arsenal of extra-virgin olive oils and balsamics courtesy of Old World Olive Press: Would your fledgling Chicken Marsala finally learn to fly with Milanese Gremolata, or Herbs de Provence?

The market also boasts Field and Fire, a new artisanal bakery from Ann Arbor baking-world rock god Shelby Kibler, of Zingerman's fame, and a respected fishmonger in Fish Lads, owned by Traverse City native and Seattle fish-market veteran Jeffrey Butzow.

Butzow moved to Seattle and helped run two fish retailers at Seattle's famous Pike Place market over a span of 15 years -- all the while, he says, entertaining ideas of moving back to Michigan. But he always managed to put off the idea and "let it evaporate," as he puts it, until he heard about the Downtown Market. The chance to move back and start his own fish market, specializing in local Great Lakes-supplied fish and supplementing with carefully-sourced catch from the Pacific and Atlantic, finally gave him the push he needed.

"Honestly, I like this place a lot better than [the Pike Place market]," Butzow says. "They’ve got tons of people there and it's a huge tourist trap, and anyone who goes to Seattle goes to that market, for sure. At times, when you're so busy with guaranteed clientele, unfortunately, a lot of times the quality suffers. When you know that you're gonna be busy by default, you don't really have to be that creative or passionate. Here, they really emphasize that, and it's nice to bring that passion to what you're doing."

Like most other vendors that Rapid Growth spoke to at the market's soft opening, Butzow said the traffic and enthusiasm exceeded anything he'd planned for.

"We were a lot busier than we thought we were gonna be," he said. "We were running like chickens with our heads cut off for the first few hours. But people have been very receptive, and we sold quite a bit of fish for a soft opening, so it's great."

It's almost impossible not to feel a bit awed at the sunlit, ultra-modern grandeur of the market, whose $30 million construction, overseen by local building giant Pioneer Construction, was funded by the not-for-profit Dick DeVos brainchild Grand Action.  Besides the indoor vendors downstairs, there are commercial-grade incubator kitchens, ready for rent by the hour; instructional kitchens with stainless-steel counters that contain hydraulic-operated bases for adjustable height; a computer-controlled greenhouse; and dual-function demonstration rooms and event spaces, lined with recycled wood from the old buildings that preceded the Market at its site.

The market's architects at locally-owned ProgressiveAE designed the entire building with the intent of making the Downtown Market the first indoor/outdoor market to achieve silver-level LEED certification; that's a complex process (which you can read about here), but suffice it to say that it required the market's design team to make environmentally-conscious decisions at just about every juncture. The building mostly relies on natural sunlight for lighting, employs high-efficiency water systems, offers showers on-premises for bike commuters, and uses specially-designed green roofing for some portions of the exterior.

Still, despite all the green credentials, the positive vibes, and the magnificent food offerings stuffing the shelves at the Market's soft open, some might find it hard to imagine sitting in this big glass-and-metal monument just a couple hundred feet away from the homeless congregations in Heartside Park, savoring a glass of French red and pecking at charcuterie, and not feeling a little... well... bourgie. The dreaded "g-word" even tends to pop into one's mind.

"That's where a lot of people automatically go -- gentification," says Mimi Fritz, CEO of the Downtown Market. "They see lofts go up [in Heartside], but they don't know that's affordable housing. So, I think people see the development and the money that's going into this area, and... Is it gentrification? I don't know. We're not pushing anyone out. We're not complaining about anyone. MLive asked us about [residing near] Heartside Park, and we've had no issue at all."  

Fritz says that she's heard people's concerns about how the new market will affect the lives of long-time Heartside residents, and that she and the board of the Downtown Market have spent a great deal of time working with local Heartside leaders and community agencies, engineering ways to interact with and enhance the neighborhood that preceded them there.

To that end, the Downtown Market hosts a neighborhood advisory committee made up of long-time residents of the Heartside area, and Fritz says the market will work to make its educational and classroom aspects inclusive to longtime neighborhood residents and commuters alike.

The market also features an on-site food truck, called "Fresh Food for Heartside," that allows market-goers and vendors to donate fresh produce and unused market product to local agencies. It's a welcome change from the steady stream of canned and boxed food that most food drives tend to distribute, says Fritz.

"Everyone here [at the Market] is interested in placemaking," she says. "We'd love to create a new market district, but we also want to be part of the neighborhoods that are here, too. We're very sensitive to what their needs are."

She adds, "This is a place for everybody to be. It's not our market, it's Grand Rapids' market. It's everybody's market.”

Grand Rapids resident Michelle Hand took her daughters Genevieve, 5, and Emerson, 2, to the indoor market's soft open. They ate ice cream from Love's, chocolate and strawberry, and walked among the booths while Michelle chatted with vendors. She says she's excited for the three to be able to take a few cooking classes together at the market when the girls get a little older.

"I think [the market] exceeds people's expectations," says Michelle, who works at Aperitivo's sister store Art of the Table. "I think that's what people are going to think when they come, don't you? I mean, people can buy fresh food, they can have a glass of wine, they can sit and eat a sandwich or get ice cream. I’d just like to see lots of people get excited about it," she says. "I think it's one thing Grand Rapids was missing.

Steven Thomas Kent is a Michigan son who ran away to join the circus called Chicago for the better part of a decade. All grown up now and based in Grand Rapids, he can be stalked on Twitter @steventkent or reached at [email protected] for story tips and feedback.

Photography by Adam Bird