Local food businesses pair up, produce new generations of great tastes
Story by Heather Ray
Photography by Joe Laedtke
It’s the classic boy meets girl story. But for our purposes, let’s call the boy “Whiskey” and the girl “Ice Cream.” They have so much in common—they both come in pints, they’re both surprising good with root beer, and they’re both worthy of almost any adult celebration. So for Purple Door Ice Cream owners Lauren and Steve Schultz, it was a natural set up to introduce Whiskey to their prized, hand-crafted Ice Cream. Things were off to a good start. Ice Cream seemed to like Whiskey, and people liked them as a couple, but there was something about this particular blend of Whiskey that lacked the kind of local accent that really spoke to Ice Cream.
Then Ice Cream met a new guy—literally, the boy next door, and literally his name is Guy, as in Guy Rehorst, founder of Wisconsin’s first small-batch distillery, Great Lakes Distillery. Since GLD is no more than a mile from Purple Door’s new home on South 2nd Street in Walker’s Point, it was only a matter of time before the two artisans would cross paths.
“We met Guy through a series of local events,” says Lauren. “We kept ending up having a booth next to one another … but when we finally tasted the Kinnickinnic Whiskey, we just knew.” It wasn’t long before precious little pints of Purple Door Whiskey Ice Cream graced the frozen food aisle in markets, proving that when local genes mix, beautiful things can happen.
It’s a sentiment that echoes throughout the artisan culture—a means for businesses to grow strong among the support of fellow local merchants. Competitive instincts are trumped by partnerships and a shared devotion to making Milwaukee a more sustainable community, as evidenced by an offspring of inventive goods.
Even for frozen pizza. In a seemingly saturated market, co-owners of The Milwaukee Pizza Company, Erik Burgos and Nick Smith, have cracked the 5-letter code to product differentiation. L-O-C-A-L. “We knew we wanted to make a beer pizza,” says Burgos. “We picked up some Sprecher Amber to test our recipe, and once we tasted it, we agreed right away we were done looking for the right beer.” With that, Burgos and Smith approached Sprecher with the original recipe … and a new generation of pizzas were created exclusively for Sprecher: the beer and brat, the BBQ chicken, and the spicy pulled pork—all on a Sprecher Irish stout pretzel crust, available exclusively in the Sprecher Brewing Company’s gift shop in Glendale.
Intrigued by the unions of fellow artisans, a curious entrepreneur, Sara Wong, founder of the Milwaukee Mustard Company, was inspired to develop a liquor-infused mustard. “So I contacted Great Lakes Distillery,” says Wong. “Guy graciously agreed to meet at the distillery where he sampled my Whiskonsin Whiskey Mustard made with the renowned Kinnickinnic Whiskey.” Once again, the GLD’s spirited name lived on in a new family of artisan products. And that wouldn’t be the last…
Owner of Indulgence Chocolatiers Julie Waterman says, “We use Great Lakes Distillery for all of our spirited truffles, caramels, and praline.” In fact, you can taste the Milwaukee resemblance in just about everything they make. “We also feature Stone Creek Coffee’s Green Bike Espresso in our Espresso Bean bar and use it to top our espresso truffles,” continues Waterman, “Penzey’s and The Spice House are where we get all of our spices, and we create chocolates specifically to pair with a ton of local beers from Lakefront Brewery, Hinterland, and Milwaukee Brewing Company.”
These days, it’s not uncommon for a small business to have a little black book with a handful or more of local partners—it’s how new flavors are born. And it’s a virtue for owners like Wong who believe community collaborations bring out the tastiest traits in her brood of mustards.
Wong’s Whiskonsin Whiskey Mustard is one of four creations featuring a namesake Wisconsin flavor. After sampling the honey produced by Walnut Way Conservation Corp. during a visit to Fondy Food Market, Wong described it as “the best honey I’ve ever tasted.” She used it to develop a classic honey mustard before meeting with Walnut Way’s Director of Environmental Stewardship, Larry Adams, to request his permission to purchase the honey and credit Walnut Way on the label.
These days, it’s not uncommon for a small business to have a little black book with a handful or more of local partners—it’s how new flavors are born.
“I’ve always felt passionate about making healthy food accessible and affordable for all, and the people at Walnut Way share that mission,” says Wong. It’s the same criterion she used when she contacted the Wisconsin Cranberry Cooperative to seek out a grower for her personal favorite, Tomah Tang Cranberry Mustard. “I was so excited to connect with Ray Habelman,” the fourth generation CEO of Habelman Bros. Company family-owned and operated cranberry farm, with land in Tunnel City, Tomah, and Millston, Wisconsin. “And he was incredibly supportive of my invitation to collaborate.”
Closer to home, the Milwaukee Brewing Company welcomed Wong with a pint in each hand. “How can you call yourself Milwaukee Mustard Company and not have a beer mustard?” she says. “Jim McCabe and his team were gracious enough to sit down with me at the brewery and taste a sampling of the mustard I prepared using a variety of their beverages.” And with that, the bold flavor of Polish Moon was passed on to the progeny that is now Spicy Stout Beer Mustard.
“Milwaukee food and beverage producers are an incredibly supportive and encouraging group who are eager to partner with peers. I expected the market to be much more competitive,” says Wong. “Thankfully, I was wrong.”
The Milwaukee Mustard Company, Purple Door Ice Cream, Stone Creek Coffee, Anodyne Coffee Roasting Company, and Indulgence Chocolatiers join hundreds of independently-owned Milwaukee businesses in the rapidly growing Local First network. It’s an alliance for businesses and non-profits in the metro-Milwaukee area to rally for the continued education on the economic benefits of supporting homegrown shops.
According to Local First, $.68 of every $1 spent shopping local stays in the community. With that in mind, if Milwaukeeans shifted 10 percent of what they spend on national chains to local businesses, nearly $300 million in new economic activity would be generated each year. And with more than 200 listings in Local First’s directory, keeping your change circulating in the neighborhood is more viable than ever. Still, don’t be surprised (or offended) if you see the “Shift Happens” logo gracing sporty baseball tees throughout the city. It’s the latest fund raising effort from Local First to support ongoing and future education initiatives.
Or you can just eat ice cream. Because the real phenomenon lies in how local businesses choose to spend the dollars you spend on them. Every time Purple Door sources ingredients from Rishi Tea for the Raspberry Green Tea Ice Cream, or Becky’s Blissful Bakery buys Lakefront Brewery beer for their Beer and Pretzel Caramels, or when The Milwaukee Pizza Company purchases Usinger’s bratwurst and Sprecher beer to top the Wisconsin Beer Brat Pizza, a shift toward Milwaukee’s happily ever after is being made.
Heather Ray is a Milwaukee- based freelance writer currently pursuing a Master’s in Nutrition and Dietetics from Eastern Michigan University. As the former editor of Healthy Cooking magazine for Reader’s Digest, she claims to eat healthy 80 percent of the time, reserving 20 percent for pie. When she’s not buried in homework, you’re likely to find her running along the lake or shooting arrows at one of Milwaukee’s indoor ranges.