Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Taste the Difference: The Madison Region

By Christa Tinsley Spaht, Project Manager.

With globalization, immigration, footloose talent, and short-lived food trends getting way too much hype in the national press, it seems that as our food options diversify, the “specialness” and uniqueness of distinct food cultures gets diluted. When I was in New York City earlier this year, just about every menu we tried offered some take on Southern fried chicken and grits. (I still get irritated when my friends in New York call grilling hamburgers and hot dogs a barbecue but that’s another issue.)

Admittedly, I was a bit jaded before the first time I visited the Madison Region, Wisconsin for our pre-kickoff familiarization tour. (Market Street is working with Thrive, the eight-county region’s economic development organization, through the process to develop Advance Now, a five-year strategy. Read more about Advance Now on the project website and check out their awesome video.)

While preparing  Market Street project assistant Stephanie Allen and me for our upcoming trip, the Thrive staff mentioned great restaurants, a strong local food culture, and lots of cheese. Well, we have all those things in Atlanta, right? I’d been to the cheese section of Whole Foods and watched more farm-to-table restaurants open in my city than I can handle – I thought I’d seen it all.

Then I actually went to Wisconsin.

One of our stops in the fam tour was Metcalfe’s. The renewable-energy-powered grocery posts signs by many of their products indicating exactly how many miles that product traveled to get to the store shelf. The local market doesn’t have the footprint of national-chain supermarkets, but the artisan cheese department was unbelievable in scope and size, sourced with dozens and dozens of local and state artisan cheese suppliers.

We also stopped in Downtown Mazomanie, a small city in rural Dane County.

This row of well-preserved storefronts hides the Mazomanie Heritage Kitchen, a food incubator and initiative of UW-Extension’s Food Business Innovation Network (FoodBIN). This isn’t the only food incubator in the region – the Wisconsin Innovation Kitchen in Mineral Point (Iowa County) is another driver of food processing with local agriculture products.

I also got a peek at the Dane County Farmers Market, “the largest producer-only farmers’ market in the country.” This market sets up every Saturday (snow or shine) just off of Madison’s Capitol Square, as well as on Wednesdays in the summertime.  
The Dane County Farmers’ Market is but one of the nearly 40 regular farmers markets that operate throughout the Madison Region, putting the region’s per-capita farmers markets way above the national average, according to 2010 data from the USDA’s Food Environment Atlas.

We also made a stop to see New Glarus Brewing in Green County, one of the most popular microbreweries in south Wisconsin. No, we did not taste the fruits of their labors as it was early on a Tuesday morning when the Thrive folks took us.

The love of many Wisconsinites for beer is well known, so I don’t need to belabor that point except to mention that in our team’s business sector analysis of the Madison Region we discovered that the drinking places for alcoholic beverages subsector has a location quotient of 3.50.

If my quick run-down of the Madison Region’s special food and drink culture and economy isn’t enough for you (and for the record, we did do more on our fam tour than eat), see what the New York TimesFrugal Traveler had to say about his recent visit there.

Our CEO Mac Holladay frequently reminds us all the time that every community is different. In the age of rapid globalization and disruptive information technology, I sometimes do forget that every community is truly different beyond being at a different spot on the map than I am. With each region, community, and state we work with, we are constantly delighted and sometimes befuddled by how one-of-a-kind it is. It’s even more delightful when that means we get to eat a lot of cheese every time we travel there.

Another thing that makes the Madison Region so very different from where I live? It’ll be snowing up there tomorrow when the high in Atlanta is 72 degrees.