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A Look Back at Where Midtown Global Market Is Going

Earlsworth Letang has been with the Midtown Global Market since it started in the 2000s, and as the manager checks in with groups leasing space to make sure they have what they need to be successful.

Yildz Akgul’s Mapps Coffee was one of the first to buy into the vision of the Midtown Global Market back in 2006. Her original coffee shop’s location in the Bailey building at the University of Minnesota shared space with the African Development Center, and they approached her about a new, global-inspired endeavor revitalizing the Sears building on Lake Street, which had sat empty for 10 years.

“Every development center was reaching out to their clients,” she says, and they wanted the Turkish native to join the new project under the African flag. 

They also wanted family businesses, and Akgul’s qualified: Her husband roasts the beans and makes the base for their chai tea from scratch, her daughter works the counter and her son fills in for emergencies. 

“In the beginning we worked seven days a week, 12 hours a day,” she says. “When we weren’t there we were shopping for the coffee shop.”

She originally said no to the organizers, because she and her husband were still learning the business, but that was before the development center folks showed her the space and introduced her to the people behind the project. 

“The hospital was there and Allina’s (Health) was going to be there,” she says about the location. 

When she found out Mapps could have the space at one of the entrances, the deal was struck. 

“Success is a great feeling and we wanted to feel that,” she says about the ambitious project.

Originally there were two coffee shops in the market, but the other one closed within the first year. “We learned from that: They were not clean enough, no consistency, not friendly,” Akgul says, ticking off the offenses. She only hires people with “shining eyes” and frequent smiles. Her regulars have become her friends, who she not only knows by name, but has even invited some to her home as guests. 

Mapps is just one of the success stories of the global market. It has given birth to some great concepts that have moved on to allow others to take their place. 

Yildz Akgul, owner of Mapps Coffee, says the idea for the name and decorations for their coffee shops was a collection of old National Geographic maps her husband collected.

Midtown Global Market is a great example of a community coming together to preserve its heritage. Because there was fear at that time that the long-vacant Sears building would become a “big box” store and drive out local businesses, neighboring entrepreneurs looked to the Neighborhood Development Center (NDC) for support in taking the abandoned building to create something that would encourage small businesses to start and grow. NDC, the Latino Economic Development Center and other organizations were working at the time with small businesses on Lake Street to fill empty storefronts by providing training and start-up loans, so it was a natural progression.

The market’s goal, starting from when it was still on the drawing board in the early 2000s, was “to create a place that’s exciting, safe and lifts up the spirits of the people of the neighborhood,” says Earlsworth Letang, market manager. The plan was to have a vibrant market that reflected the small businesses of the neighborhood—and not to allow a mega-business to move into the area and put the local shop owners out of business.

The market officially opened in 2006, and while it still embodies that vision today, its owners are looking for ways to improve its offerings, attract established restaurant tenants with a following and continue to serve as an incubator for fledgling businesses. The intent, Letang stresses, is to “build a community from within” for the diverse population who live in the area, while creating an experience that will attract people from other nearby cities and suburbs. 

The neighborhood includes a melting pot of Somali, Latinos, African Americans, Native Americans, Europeans and East Africans, he says.

And while the owners are looking to expand revenues streams, they want to stay true to the original intent. 

More than 45 businesses spanning 22 cultures are housed there, but the numbers ebb and flow with the businesses coming and going. However, 18 of the original businesses are still there, according to its website. The Neighborhood Development Center and the Cultural Wellness Center own the Market and continue to offer business support services to the merchants, including financing.

The original tagline—“Many tastes, one place”—still holds true, and the market stresses the authenticity of its food. So for immigrants, it’s a taste of home, and for  the well-traveled public it’s an opportunity to indulge in the cuisine they sampled while visiting other locales. 

Through his spot at the Midtown Global Market, Manuel Gonzales has appeared with Food Network stars and appeared on a food segment by ESPN.

Letang tells the story of an older woman from Edina he met standing at the entrance years ago. She was scoping out the market, timidly at first, because while she had heard that there was something exciting going on, she also heard news reports of crime, drugs and prostitution in the area. After the two of them talked and Letang explained that putting a vibrant market in a previously empty building was making the area safer, the woman promised to return with her book club. Why this pleased Letang is that such interactions were the beginning of chipping away at the perception of the area by suburbanites as dicey.

To both attract the neighborhood and outsiders, the market sponsors a variety of cultural events that are family friendly. The center of the market is a large space reserved for seating and special events, such as art projects, salsa dancing and music. Their major events center around the holidays, when the market hosts a craft festival that attracts around 10,000 people, he says. 

On the day we were there, a large group of enthusiastic students were converging on the market, along with a steady stream of workers from the nearby healthcare facilities. School groups tour the market, eat and have cooking demonstrations, all while learning about diversity.

The original anchor tenant, Holy Land, already had a successful business at the time and is still going strong. It has both a restaurant space and a grocery store, stocked with items not readily available in most suburban grocery stores. J&J Distribution has become The Produce Exchange as the business passed from father to son. 

Tenants range from well-known concepts, such as Holy Land, to Hot Indian Foods, started by a food exec as a food truck, to Taco Cat, which delivers tacos to the neighborhood via bicycle. James Beard-nominated Chef Michelle Gayer of The Salty Tart got her start at the market, along with Samlali Raja and Hassan Ziadi of Moroccan Flavors, who opened a popular restaurant space in the market (they were the winners of the Hidden Gem award from the Charlies in 2018). Ziadi went through the center’s business classes to help him gain the foundation for opening his own restaurant. The couple opened a second location in the market—the space formerly The Rabbit Hole, located outside the entrance—but closed it this fall due to health issues. 

A new Latino offering that debuted in late October is La Michoacana Purépecha, a frozen treats concept. Ricardo Hernandez and Jazmin Hernández Martinez sell an authentic, original experience of traditional La Michoacana shops in Mexico. The menu consists of paletas, which are Popsicle-type treats, 30 different ice cream flavors, exclusive fruit yogurts, aguas frescas (naturally flavored water drinks), fruit cups and shakes. 

Purépecha people are an indigenous community of the Mexican state Michoacán, whom La Michoacana Purépecha aims to support through language, education and awareness through their social mission. 

While there are several Mexican food booths, each one has its own specialties. For instance, Salsa a la Salsa offers table service, while across the aisle La Loma Tamales serves breakfast all day, along with its impressive list of tamales. 

One of the original tenants is another Mexican concept, Manny’s Tortas.  Manuel Gonzales, who owns the business with his sister, was already operating Manny’s Tortas in the Mercado Central down the street when he was approached about opening in Midtown Global.

Tortas, a popular Mexican sandwich, were novel at the time and therefore not seen as conflicting with any of the other offerings. 

Gonzales didn’t see that his two units would encroach on each other as well. “This area was growing,” he says, and his shop took off once people knew they could find his tortas there.  At one time he had three units, but decided to concentrate on the one in the Midtown Global Market and the State Fair.

It’s been a lucky location for him. In 2008, Food Network star Guy Fieri featured him, ESPN’s college football’s nod to culinary offerings included his tortas in their coverage and another TV foodie, Andrew Zimmern, did a show with him from this booth at the Minnesota State Fair. 

Born in Mexico City, Gonzales moved here in 1982, after culinary school. He wanted to work with the Sheraton hotel chain, but was turned down for a job because he didn’t speak English. He was swayed by images of 10,000 beautiful lakes to study at Hamline University. “Of course, they never show you winter,” he says about the recruitment practices. 

The restaurant business has changed since he got into it in the late ‘90s. “Politics are changing,” he says. “It’s harder for immigrants to get there.” When he opened his first Manny’s on Lake, labor was no problem. Now, even in a Latino neighborhood, it’s hard to find labor for his restaurants. “I would love to open another, but it’s hard to find employees,” he said. 

As the business climate changes, Midtown market officials want to stay abreast of what they need to do to help their clients thrive and maintain their competitive advantage. Delivery, catering, online sales, ghost kitchens, funding programs are  being investigated. And with resources at hand, there’s much more coming. 

The market is also a great spot to shop for ethnic gifts, such as this row of piñata ladies.

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