Are all groceries created equal?
Does it matter where we buy our food?
Otherwise serious people treat shopping at Findlay Market as a kind of civic virtue, an expression of support for Cincinnati itself. The market's importance to the city seemed all the greater after the rioting April 10 and 11 in Over-the-Rhine, which damaged some of the stores and made the old marketplace suddenly seem unsafe.
Findlay Market is not unsafe. Findlay Market is, however, unfamiliar -- and therein lies its appeal. Findlay Market is different.
"(There is) an array of things here that you can't get anywhere else in the city," says Ryan Lillis of Eckerlin Meats.
The city-owned market houses dozens of merchants, each with a specialized product line. A single butcher shop, for example, has 40 varieties of homemade sausages. Other vendors sell fresh seafood, organic produce, imported cheeses and ethnic specialties.
"Just about anything you want, you can find it at the market," says Steve Summerlin of Cincinnati.
The variety of foodstuffs might be one of Findlay Market's chief commercial draws, but it is the variety of people working and shopping there that distinguishes the market as a symbol of the city. The owners of the businesses are German, Irish, Italian, African American, Latino, Lebanese and Vietnamese.
The result is unlike corporate-owned food stores. Carol Kroth of North Avondale says the market offers "more ambiance than Kroger."
Iris Diamond of East Walnut Hills has visited the market for more than 50 years.
"It offers something that you can't get by just going to a grocery store," Diamond says. "It's got the flavor of the city."
It's also got the history of the city: Some family businesses have operated in Findlay Market for four generations.
"There's a lot of tradition in this market," Lillis says.
Built between 1852 and 1855, the market has its origins in a log-cabin store opened in 1793 by General James Findlay, who later served two terms as mayor of Cincinnati.
For many, the market is as vital to the city's heritage as professional baseball.
"I cherish the memories," Diamond says. "As a youngster in the '40s, I would march in the Findlay Market Parade and wind up at Crosley Field for opening day for the Cincinnati Reds."
For some, going to Findlay Market is a fixed part of the week, according to Bryan Madison, owner of Madison's Ridgeview Farming and Madison's at Findlay Market.
"Findlay Market is a lot like going to church," Madison says. "It's a ritual."
Valerie Harvey of Northside has been a customer for 25 years. What keeps her coming back?
"The freshness of the meat," she says.
But the market also serves a social need, Harvey acknowledges.
"This is the only place the people that don't have transportation can get to," she says.
Findlay Market, after all, is the chief grocery in Over-the-Rhine; its merchants do not survive on suburban customers alone. Both prices and quality attract people, according to Jeff Gibbs, owner of Gibbs Cheese.
City Manager John Shirey echoes Gibbs' assessment. Findlay Market, he says, offers "fresh products at good prices, value as well as a wonderful atmosphere. I think it a wonderful atmosphere in which to shop. It's fun, rather than a chore."
Take Shirey's word for it -- even if he doesn't actually patronize the market, a sore point with some of the merchants. Shirey says he normally only goes to Findlay Market on city business, an admission he immediately regrets.
"Don't tell people the manager doesn't shop at Findlay Market," he says.
In point of fact, Shirey doesn't shop anywhere very much, he says; his wife does that job. But the simple truth is the city manager doesn't shop at Findlay Market. He does, however, want you to.
Does it matter where we buy our food? Sometimes it does. Sometimes where we buy our food changes our view of people, neighborhoods and the city. Findlay Market draws people to a part of Cincinnati they might not otherwise see -- a start, perhaps, in broadening human relations.
"Everybody in Cincinnati should come here at least once," Gibbs says. "Once they come here, they'll come back."
BURNING QUESTIONS is our weekly attempt to afflict the comfortable.
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