When the South Shore Farmers Market (SSFM) opens its 24th season this summer, two familiar faces will be absent. Dolly Mertens of Wild Flour Bakery and Phil Herrin of Herrin Farms are semi-retiring.
Both Mertens and Herrin have participated in the market since its beginning years. The Compass caught up with them to capture their reflections on their years at the market and about their future plans.
Dolly and her husband Greg Mertens have been married for almost 50 years. They have always been entrepreneurs at heart. Dolly once owned a custard stand in Eau Claire, WI. The couple owned a residential and commercial cleaning business, which they sold 27 years ago to start Wild Flour.
Wild Flour’s first location was a leased space in New Berlin. They outgrew it and purchased a building on the corner of South 28th Street and West Lincoln Avenue. They’ve also operated in Bay View, East Troy, the Grand Avenue Mall in downtown Milwaukee, and their current location, 1205 S. Milwaukee Ave., in South Milwaukee.
The Mertens recently partnered with Stephen Blanchard of Stephen’s Breads. “During that process, we will be selling to him,” Dolly said. “Our breads are similar, yet different. We both do sourdough breads, and we both work with starters, which is a more artisan way of baking bread.”
Dolly grew up on her family’s farm in Colby, WI. She’s the 13th of 14 children. “My mother and I baked every day—we had people to feed!” she said.
She was inspired by the generosity that her parents showed to the community. Her father Bill Hackel harvested a fellow farmer’s crops for him while he recovered from back surgery. Her mother Helen frequently bought garments at rummages sales, laundered and mended them, and then Dolly secretly dropped them off on the doorsteps of their impoverished neighbors.
Warm sense of community
Wild Flour was one of the vendors at the SSFM at the inaugural market event in 1998. Dolly was approached by market volunteers to ask if she was interested in participating. At first, she was apprehensive about taking on another market. At the time, she was selling at three other farmers markets. “But I said, ‘Sure, let’s do it and I loved it! It’s one of my favorite places,’” she said. “It’s a very different community.”
Wild Flour was at the New Berlin, Cathedral Square, and Brookfield farmers markets. South Shore was her fourth market. “I call South Shore my market,” she said. “We did several others, but I call it my market because it’s where I choose to be every Saturday.”
Dolly and Greg had help from their family. Their son Josh was involved with the business for 20 years. His wife Alayna also helped. Their other son Jay and his wife Michelle were also involved, and their daughter Brenda DeLatora helped operate Wild Flour’s stand at the SSFM.
Dolly recalled how Brenda, now 29 years old and living in Florida, was tearful during a recent phone conversation. “She said, ‘Grandma, I wanted to be there with you on your last day at the market!’ She got to know all the customers and gained so much from being there,” Dolly said.
The SSFM’s warm sense of community, along with a solid market board and volunteer staff, were outstanding, Dolly said. Most of the vendors have become friends. They frequently share leftover products and help each other if someone runs out of change or needs help at their stand when short-staffed.
Dolly maintained a tradition of gifting a loaf of bread to a family when they brought a new baby to the market. “It’s to welcome the new baby to the community. I’ve given away a lot of bread. Families later return with their second or third child and remember how I gave them that first loaf. I tell them that Bay View’s population had risen dramatically because I gave them a loaf of bread,” she quipped.
Many of those families return to say hello with those same children who are now grown and in college.
There were five vendors at SSFM when Dolly first started. “It was small, but it did not take long for people to have a real interest in being in that market and build that sense of community,” she said.
Dolly knew Phil Herrin from the Cathedral Square market. He often dropped off his son Mark, who was 14 in the market’s first season, so Dolly could watch him while Phil worked other markets. It wasn’t long before Mark was minding the Herrin Farms stand at SSFM.
When she first started, Dolly said sesame semolina and cranberry walnut breads were her top sellers. Her jalapeño cheese bread flew off the table, along with brioche buns, which she started making in recent years for upscale pubs and restaurants.
What does retirement have in store for Mertens? “More sleep!” she laughed. She plans to spend more time with her four grandchildren and vacation at their second home in Utah. “But it’s not like I’m going to ignore the bakery. I’ll still have my hands on the flour one way or another,” she said.
Dolly plans to visit the market this summer. “I collect people,” she said. “I have made so many wonderful friendships—the market staff, the other vendors, and the customers. These people, even though I don’t see them a great deal, have brought so much to my world.”
Though we are closing in on the end of the 2021 market season, it’s a great moment to acknowledge and show love for some of the South Shore Farmers’ Market’s newest vendors. In 2021, we welcomed five new vendors: Centgraf Farms, Plan Bee Honey, Rise & Grind Coffee, Soul Brew Kombucha and Stamper Cheese. Recently, committee member Elisabeth Gasparka had the chance to speak with two of the business owners about their businesses, what motivates them, and how the South Shore Farmers’ Market is part of their inspiration, their growth, and their evolving stories.
SOUL BREW KOMBUCHA
Tell us about your business origin story.
It was birthed out of a place where I was learning how to take care of myself. I had decided that I wanted to start doing things for me, as a woman. I think a lot of women experience this: we give until our cups are empty, and we have nothing left for ourselves. And I was a victim of that. Bad habits, depression, overworking myself for other people, giving myself to my students as an educator, and still trying to be a mom at home, and I ended up being pre-diabetic. Fast forward to a conversation with my sister who said, “Hey, maybe you should start drinking kombucha. It stinks, and it tastes really gross, but it’s really good for you.”
I tried it…and I didn’t enjoy it. I didn’t think about it again, until I was scrolling on Facebook. A woman I knew was offering some extra scobys. I remember while doing some of the research early on I learned that “scoby” stood for a “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast” and I was super intrigued. I got in the car, I drove over to her home. She showed me where I should get my bottle and the things I needed to start brewing at home. And that one scoby transformed into an entire business. I’m forever grateful for that moment.
I started brewing out of a desire to heal myself, and the benefits really rang true to me. Within twenty minutes my acid reflux had really calmed down. I had a lot of energy. I saw that my inflammation was going down. It prompted me to want to exercise. You know, when you start doing small things that are good for you, it leads to you doing larger things that are good for you. All around, it changed my state of thinking about health and wellness, and I started sharing it with women at church. They really enjoyed the flavors, and I learned early on that it was about education.
After doing a little bit more research into the brands that are out there– I saw that they really don’t target Black and Brown people. A lot of issues that we’re dealing with in the inner city– I felt like I had stumbled upon this elixir that really could be beneficial. I wanted to create a brand that really spoke to the people. Not that I wanted to exclude anyone because we’re very diverse and we’re very inclusive in our messaging, but at the same time, I wanted to do something that I know other brands are not doing by targeting Black and Brown people, and really making it diabetic-friendly. “Low in sugar, high and delicious flavor,” is our motto and that’s what we continue to provide in our product.
The name Soul Brew is a reflection of how it made me feel. It felt good to my soul, and, being a native of Milwaukee, I had to acknowledge the brew city. Within six months, I decided It was going to be a business. I did some research about what the market looks like. It was all about targeting yoga moms, suburban white mothers, not Black and Brown people. I felt it could be really beneficial for those communities. So that intrigued me as well.
What drives you?
I’ve always been a woman of service. This is a great way for me to give. I’ve always been a creative, and coming up with flavors has been great. I’m a foodie, and I have a very intricate palette. And I like to put things together that make sense. Outside of it being something that I could change my life with, as a business, I really enjoy the creativity behind it.
How would you describe the spirit of your company?
Ooh, we are alive, we are vibrant, we are raw, we are real. You know, I spoke to someone about the tone. And I said, I see Soul Brew as a favorite “Auntie.” She speaks the truth, she’s always speaking in love, and she’s always helping you. And this is the person you can confide in and you trust: that’s Soul Brew. I want it to be the brand that people can look at and say, “Okay, I know I’m getting what I’m supposed to be getting, I know I’m going to enjoy this, I know that it’s going to be great for my health. I know that messaging is going to be able to reach me and other people, I’m going to learn something from this.”
What is special about your product?
It’s creative. It’s Wisconsin’s first Black female kombucha company. I bring a lot to the table. It’s diabetic friendly, I’m targeting a certain group of individuals. My flavor profiles are unique and creative. You can identify with them, and it makes you want to come back and try something new.
What attracted you to apply to join the South Shore Farmers’ Market?
When I first thought about doing farmers markets everybody said, “You’ve got to get into South Shore. The people are faithful, you’ll really create a wonderful clientele people you know, rain or shine people are there.” It’s a wonderful group of people. I was so bummed out when I was told initially that they didn’t have a spot for me. But lo and behold, another company went out of business, and a spot opened up and I got the call. I was so excited. It’s become one of my absolute favorite spaces to go on Saturday. I love the people and the energy there. People are very willing to hear me out and learn more about kombucha. I love that people come back excited to tell me about their own health discoveries. It’s a wonderful group of people, and I’m very grateful to now be a part of that circle.
Where else in Milwaukee or beyond can people find your products?
We’re online a mysoulbrew.com and milwaukeefarmersunited.com After the market season is over, we will be opening up our space to do Growler fill-ups. People can sign up with a subscription and come and get their growlers filled throughout the rest of the year. We are also found at:
Outpost Natural Foods, Riley Sandwich Shop, Good Kind, Strange Town, Company Brewing, Urban Beets, Draft & Vessel, Glass Pantry
Willy Street Co-op
Blue Mills Garden
How has the pandemic impacted your business?
The world seemed to be on a downward spiral, and in the midst of that I had something that was immune-building. I had to shut down production for a couple months. And it wasn’t anyone but Judge Mosley who called me and said, “Hey, my daughter wants some of your kombucha,” and I said, “Well, Judge, we had to close down production. Unfortunately, I don’t have anything, but I am about to start back up again.” He said, “Okay, well, as soon as you do, you let me know.” And so I did. He followed up by saying, “I’m going to post this on my foodie page, but I’m telling you now, when I post this you’re going to get a lot of inquiries. Are you ready?” Of course I said yes. I wasn’t ready, though. After that, I got order after order after order. I had to start taking pre-orders. That was in June of 2020, so in the midst of a pandemic we really started to take off.
Simultaneously, we had social unrest and so much was going on. I came up with a flavor, “BLM,” which is blackberry, lemon and mango. It’s a strong message with a sweet refrain, since “BLM” also stands for Black Lives Matter. The fact that we were able to speak to the people through the product made me extremely excited.
What are your plans for the future?
My goal is to distribute nationally, and even internationally. I am looking into cans and really pushing e-commerce. We are growing. In April, we moved into our own facility, South First Street inside the Lincoln Warehouse building, and we’ve grown more from then until now. It has been a steady climb, and a huge undertaking, but I love what I do. It is really refreshing to get testimonials from people who are giving praise to a product that is transforming their lives. People love this brand. They love what it stands for. They love that I’m a Black woman in Milwaukee doing something amazing.
Soul Brew wants to continue to getting better with pushing education and awareness for diabetes. We want to do more partnerships with restaurants as they open. We now do kegs, 12-pack bottles, and soon 6-packs of cans. So our product line has been growing immensely.
I have really, really enjoyed being part of the market this season, and I’m looking forward to Soul Brew Kombucha becoming even better, and bringing more to the table for the next season! Cheers!
– Alesia Miller, Owner
PLAN BEE HONEYCO.
What drives you to harvest honey?
I like to think that by keeping bees I am saving the planet. It makes me feel like a tiny super hero. I’ve always been fascinated by bees and how complex and efficient bee life is; I wanted to see it for myself. The best way was to put a hive in my yard, but the endeavor was daunting and all I did was think about it. I couldn’t pull the trigger. My boyfriend surprised me by enrolling me in a local beekeeping club. I didn’t have much choice, then, but to dive right in and I’m so glad I did! It’s a rewarding career that puts me in touch with nature, with the added benefit of providing a local, pure product that people love.
How would you describe the spirit of your company?
Fun, clean, and sweet! We are a green company. We don’t use any chemicals. We try to make life easy for the bees by giving them a good home and making sure we do all we can to keep their environment perfect for honey production. Then we sit back and let the bees be bees. They make the honey and we bring it to you.
What is special about your product?
It’s local. You need to know your beekeeper so you can be sure that you are buying real honey… not blended honey or honey with additives. It’s pure. The only thing in our honey is honey! It’s raw. We never heat, treat or pasteurize. We call it “hive to table.” We keep our prices affordable. And darn it, people love our honey!
What attracted you to apply to join the South Shore Farmers’ Market?
I loved the origin story of the market. I was intrigued that a group of neighbors started the market in the 1990s. Neighbors come and go, so I’m sure it isn’t the same group of neighbors, but I love the feeling of inclusion and commitment that keeps the Shore Farmers’ Market going strong all these years later! The committee is always present and always improving the market. I like to know that what I can buy at South Shore is made or grown locally.
Where else in Milwaukee (or beyond!) can people find your products?
We participate in four markets a week, and special events all around the metro area. Look for locations on our Facebook page: Plan Bee Honey Co.
How has the pandemic impacted your business, and what are your goals for the future?
The pandemic sent us all home and we had to find a new way to do business without contact, just like everyone else. We offered porch pick-up and it worked! People liked it, so we will continue porch pick-up so you can still get honey after the market season ends. The downtime gave us opportunities to build and grow new bee yards, hone our skills and techniques, poll the masses and we found out what people want. We added products, and expanded our farmers market schedule. We came back wiser and stronger and will continue as long as we have air, water and sunshine. Life is sweet!
– Erica Feltner, Owner.
There’s still time to catch Soul Brew Kombucha, Plan Bee Honey, and all the rest of our phenomenal vendors in-person at the market, before the market closes for the season at the end of October! Join us Saturday from 8 am- 12 pm at South Shore Park through Oct 30.
Market organizers announced that this year for the first time since its launch in 1998, SSFM will accept payments made with FoodShare benefits, Wisconsin’s version of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The market is partnering with the Bay View Community Center (BVCC) to institute the program.
How it works
Because many vendors don’t have the technology at their booth to process the card, SSFM will exchange FoodShare benefits for tokens. Customers will use their tokens to purchase eligible food items. Mike Mortell, president and CEO of the Bay View Community Center said that other Milwaukee markets, including Fondy, use the token system. “It’s really great for community members who use FoodShare,” he said, noting they will have access to fresh food which will provide more customers for the market’s farmers, especially beneficial during the economic duress of the pandemic.
Additionally, another set of tokens will be available for customers who want to use a credit or debit card at the market. These non-Quest-based tokens can be used to purchase any market item and will be offered as a convenience for customers who who don’t want to use cash, Mortell said.
BVCC is seeking volunteers to assist with the token exchange each Saturday at the market. Mortell said he hopes a number of people will participate so the same volunteers “hopefully would not have to be at the market every Saturday.”