Thursday, May 29, 2008

Road Trip: Larry's Market

Today was the best day ever. I decided to ditch my desk and road trip to Larry's Market in Brown Deer because some days I just need to take a drive and buy cheese. Hey, when gas is $4 bucks a gallon, it makes $20 a pound cheese look cheap.

I must confess I thought I had erred in judgement as I drove through Milwaukee in morning rush hour traffic -- yes, I know -- those of you living in major cities just snorted up your Diet Coke in disgust at the words "rush hour" and "Milwaukee" but let me tell you two words that strike fear in the heart of every eastern Wisconsin commuter: the
Marquette Interchange.

At least I think I drove through the Marquette Interchange -- there were lots of orange barrels, people driving crazily through poorly-marked lanes and half-finished ramps leading to nowhere (this is truly how directionally incompetent I am -- if it's not labeled on my GPS, I don't recognize it), but after making it through the downtown traffic and up I-43, I emerged onto Brown Deer Road.

For those of you unfamiliar with Brown Deer Road, let's just say the nicest way to describe it is strip mall hell. Throw in a gas station or two, a run-down McDonalds with not one but two drive-thru lanes, and you can about picture it. However -- and this is a big however -- once you turn onto tiny Deerwood Drive, all is right with the world.

I'm pretty sure
Larry's Market is located in downtown Mayberry. About a half block off the eyesore of a busy thoroughfare, you enter a picturesque tiny village with a hometown car garage, deli, and good old Larry's Market on the right, looking like the long lost grocery store at which your grandparents shopped.

Larry's Market started experimenting with new foods in the early 1960s when fresh cut flowers and specialty foods were not exactly staples in your local grocery store. Larry Ehlers' fascination with the new and exotic helped turn this established neighborhood business into the first specialty food store in Milwaukee.

Today, son Steve and daughter Patty ensure Larry's Market maintains its edge in the rapidly growing specialty food and cheese business by 1) listening to their customers, 2) being on the forefront of any and all new products -- especially local Wisconsin artisan cheeses -- and 3) putting service and quality first and foremost.

While Larry, age 84, still comes in every day, working the register and bantering with the regulars -- he good-naturedly mocked me when I called him "sir" -- Steve and Patty run the day-to-day show. And I must say they do it very well. Steve -- quite possibly one of the coolest people I've ever met -- gave me the 10-cent tour of the back room maze that makes up Larry's Market. Built 100 years ago, the building has been added onto a grand total of eight -- yes, eight -- times.

Originally, the store had both an upstairs and backroom apartment where the owners lived. Today, both of those spaces have been converted into offices and storage. Larry's Market also boasts one of the nicest commercial kitchens I've ever seen - with many, many employees working to turn out dozens of catering orders every day and staffing a total of four delivery vans to weddings, parties and events throughout the area.

Besides being home to more than 100 types of cheese, Larry's is home to real home-cooked food. While there, I bought dinner for the next three nights -- two frozen pot pies, a frozen ham & cheese quiche and fresh lasagna. I'd tell my husband that I cooked the stuff, but let's face it, he'd never believe me anyway.

Larry, Steve & Patty are true pioneers in promoting artisan and specialty cheeses. In 1971, the store began its transition from neighborhood grocery store that personally delivered groceries to fancy schmancy homes on the North Shore, to the specialty food shop it is today. And it all started with a box of French cheese.

"We went for the first time to the
Fancy Food Show in New York in 1971. That was a turning point," Steve told me. From that show, the Ehlers found several imported cheeses they wanted to carry and a week later, picked them up off the plane at the airport in Milwaukee. Once back at the store, they unpacked the boxes and were sold out by the end of the afternoon.

"That was when we knew we were onto something," Steve said.

As they say, the rest is history. Or not. Because Larry's Market continues to evolve. The Ehlers continue to be perhaps the loudest and strongest cheerleaders of Wisconsin artisan cheese the state could ever have. Let's just say if I was throwing a pep rally for team Wisconsin cheese, the Ehlers would be the team captains. They continually freely give their time and advice to new and emerging farmstead cheesemakers, and have been THE launching pad for more than one Wisconsin artisan cheesemaker now making it big on the national scene.

With a selling space of only 1,400 square feet, Larry's Market delivers - in more ways than one. As it says on a wall in the back room: "Damn the calories. Full feed ahead. Larry's Market. Brown Deer, Wis." Amen, brother.

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