More than three years in the making, North Avenue Market in Milwaukee officially opened for business on Wednesday.
A steady stream of customers throughout the day had the market’s proprietor beaming as his vision of creating a community gathering spot where a bank once stood has finally come to fruition.
“The dream really started back in January of 2019 when I looked at my bucket list,” said Chris Harris Morse, a relative newcomer to Milwaukee and owner of the market. “One thing was starting a bed and breakfast. Another was opening a coffee shop. Both were about creating a space for people to be able come and regenerate and connect with each other.”
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He scrapped the bed and breakfast idea because it would have meant that he and his husband, Will Morse, who was raised in the Milwaukee area, both would have had to dedicate full-time working hours to its operation.
“So, I looked at doing a coffee shop,” Harris Morse said. “I wanted it to be in my neighborhood. We live in Washington Heights, so I wanted it to be on North Avenue or Vliet Street. I don’t drink coffee, but I love the environment.”
When initial plans for another property on West North Avenue fell through, Harris Morse’s focus shifted to pursuing the purchase of a nearby 10,000-square-foot building even though it would mean launching a business that would be far more expansive than a quaint coffee house. The high-profile location on a busy thoroughfare appealed to Harris Morse, however, as did the density of the surrounding neighborhoods that are within walking distance of the spot.
After extensive preparation and some unforeseen delays due to a prior environmental issue on the property and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the former Associated Bank location has been transformed into North Avenue Market, which Harris Morse hopes will draw residents of four adjoining neighborhoods – Uptown Crossing and Washington Heights in Milwaukee and Pabst Park and Tosa East Towne in Wauwatosa – and beyond, as word spreads.
The 1940s stone building at 5900 W. North Ave. has been redesigned to feature two levels that include a prominent island bar and vendor booths.
Current vendors include A&B Desserts, Arty’s Sweet Talk Cupcakes, A Taste of Java, Bittercube, Fresh Farm Bowls, Mosler’s Vault, Packed Picnic Company, Sam’s Deli and S’Blendid Boba Tea.
The market also has a stage where musicians can perform or presentations can be made. There’s shared indoor and outdoor seating, as well as a drive-through window where orders from any of the vendors on site can be accommodated. There’s also conference space, a pop-up area and small offices available for rent. Outside, there’s a bicycle rack and repair station.
A wall on the main floor is adorned with photos of prominent Black Milwaukee business leaders. A wall on the lower level is being painted with the words from the poem Amanda Gorman wrote and delivered at the presidential inauguration.
With sunny skies and warm temperatures, the garage door at the front of the space was open on Wednesday afternoon, creating an airy atmosphere for customers arriving for the first day of business.
“I wanted to build something that is inviting,” Harris Morse said. “We want people to be able to find themselves in this space. We are not going to meet everyone’s needs and we aren’t trying to meet everyone’s needs but we are trying to create an overall theme and feel. This is what we came up with.”
A stylish island bar operated by Bittercube, a Milwaukee bitters producer, is the focal point upon entering the market. The bar features an area at table-top height to accommodate patrons who use wheelchairs, an aspect Harris Morse described as important in the effort to make the market inclusive.
“Most people that come in may not notice that but for someone in a wheelchair it can be life-changing and allow them to be a part of this,” he said.
The vendors are diverse in their backgrounds and in the type of food and drink options they provide, another key aspect of the market, Harris Morse noted.
Bittercube owner Ira Koplowitz is serving as a business partner with Harris Morse in the North Avenue Market endeavor.
“He had a real vision of what this space was going to be,” Koplowitz said while seated at the Bittercube bar, his laptop open in front of him. “I wasn’t so sure when I first walked through the space, but Chris and I really hit it off and I really liked his idea and concept for the market.”
Koplowitz liked the concept so much that he decided to move Bittercube’s bar, which had been located at the company’s production facility at 4828 W. Lisbon Ave., to the North Avenue Market.
“We are still working out some of the kinks with online ordering and the drive-through is not going to be functioning this week,” he said. “But we’re open for business.”
Bittercube plans to collaborate with vendors that share space in the market.
“One thought process is to showcase them and their ideas instead of having a bar that is separate from all the vendors and feature cocktails that marry really well with the vendors offerings,” Koplowitz said.
Bittercube will also operate Mosler’s Vault, a speakeasy that is being created inside a bank vault that remains intact on the market’s lower level. It will feature seating for 10 to 12 patrons and offer high-end cocktails. The facings of old safe deposit boxes were used in the construction of the bar.
“It’s a really unique space,” Koplowitz said.
Mosler’s Vault, which is named for the manufacturer of the bank vault door, will be open Wednesday through Saturday and have a reservation system due to limited seating.
The market is going a long way in fulfilling Harris Morse’s desire to establish roots in Milwaukee.
“I’ve moved 29 times in my life,” he said. “I was the CEO for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Kalamazoo in Michigan when I met my now-husband. We dated long distance for a while and then we decided we were going to be together. He’s been here since early childhood and works in the financial industry. It made sense that I move here.”
Harris Morse’s resume is lengthy and varied, but he said he began to realize his career had left him unfulfilled.
“I’ve been an officer in the military. I’ve been in corporate, academia, non-profits, manufacturing,” he said. “I’ve done all these things but I wasn’t passionate and it took a lot of energy out of me. I wanted to find something that can be restoring and do what makes me happy.”
Harris Morse is hopeful that the market will be a force in the area for many years to come.
“We have 15,000 people that travel up and down North Avenue during normal times,” he said. “Our focus is on our community here. We want people to come and see how vibrant it is.”