Molly and Pat Murray are extending a family tradition rooted in Cleveland’s Stockyards neighborhood.
The father-daughter team behind Wake Robin Fermented Foods are one in a peck of start ups renting space at the Hildebrandt, a family business renown for smoked meats that went belly up in the 1970s and had a rebirth as a local food incubator under third-generation owner, Bill Hildebrandt.
Capping their second year of producing hand-crafted sauerkraut, kimchi, and many splendid pickled things like carrots and cucumbers, the Murrays are exploring but also redefining Cleveland’s “maker” legacy. The (clean) break from the past for Pat, a retired physician, and Molly, who has dabbled in teaching, farming, and restaurant work, is in how they weave their values of providing jobs, eating a healthy diet and sustainable farming into their business practices.
“Can you make a business that is socially conscious, and can you pay the people who work for you a living wage?” says Pat who adds that they have three part-time employees. “I imagine a lot of people worked (at Hildebrandt) back in the day when this was a food production facility. Could you develop that sector in Cleveland again?”
He readily admits to not knowing the answers, but he would like to try to find them.
Wake Robin made a couple of important discoveries in 2014. They started finding their market, and they discovered a Northern Ohio Amish farmer who would sell them organic cabbage at an affordable price. While the bulk of their veg comes from within a 100-mile radius—which means less fossil fuel goes into the growth and transport of their ingredients—they emphasize that it took a year to find a source that also kept their product priced right.
“We don’t want to make sauerkraut for Cleveland’s one percent,” says Molly.
It is especially important to the Murrays who follow the culinary tradition brought to Cleveland from European immigrants whose descendants continue to consume this (pungent, delicious) stuff in great quantities.
“It’s neat that Cleveland has a traditional food scene,” says Molly. “Everywhere doesn’t need to be Berkeley or Portland. People here know their culture, their heritage, and are proud of it.”
Theirs is a very straightforward operation which forgoes oven or heating element. It means they could pretty much use the century-old basement lined with a brick floor and glazed cork walls with little modification. Past a large cooler door into a 55 degree space are neat rows of 35-gallon, blue plastic barrels where salt and spices do their work.
Fermentation is a pan-global practice that emerged in an age before refrigeration and trucking transformed eating habits in the West (kimchi is a relative newcomer to America, but it has been gaining entry through the kitchens of some of Cleveland’s famous chefs, Asian and other).
What emerges is placed in 16 oz. glass jars for sale at stores like Heinen’s or just down the road at a new Ohio City green grocer.
“We want to be a triple-bottom line business,” Pat says, referring to a business philosophy which adds social and environmental to the traditional definition of profit.
Why fermented foods? First, they are healthy in a way similar to yogurt.
“It’s conjectured that humans have evolved with ‘living’ foods,” Molly says. “We are meant to be living with probiotic food. With the advent of modern food technology, people thought it was necessary to have sanitary food with nothing living in it.”
“We also have a relatively short growing season and our harvest is bountiful,” she continues, “so to be able to take some of that bounty and preserve it is one of the main reasons.”
Wake Robin fits with Bill Hildebrandt’s vision for the 1905 building that his German immigrant grandfather constructed “like a fortress.” It is also home to a bumper crop of young food entrepreneurs. He expects tenant turnover from “places that don’t represent the future”— auto body and chrome plating shops—to all food and art enterprises. In 2011, the large, cool spaces and nearly indestructible materials started attracting ceramicists, an artist collective and a cheese maker. Word quickly spread among the hipster foodie set. Now, the roster includes start ups with names like Southern Fusion (Ed Riggins), Radicle Roots (Michelle Weber) and, very soon, Rising Star—the local coffee roasters who Michael Symon anointed his favorite. Rising Star will move a tasting kitchen and their roasting operation from their Hingetown location and open their third retail spot in the 2,500 sq. ft. space recently vacated by Rustbelt Welders. Adding to the retail wattage, Five Star Meats, a supplier of local, organically raised beef, will move into a converted horse barn and open a retail outlet for theirs and other tenants’ goods.
This full circle return to form for the Hildebrandt won't surprise anyone familiar with the good bones of the building—and the neighborhood.
“Stockyards was were manufacturing companies moved,” Hildebrandt says. “It’s where people could walk or take a bus. Every parcel where grandpa bought had a house on it.”
Indeed, the red brick warehouse is surrounded on all sides by residences. While the neighborhood fell on hard times after I-90 tore through it (the highways ironically expanded the reach of food producers but made place less important), the renaissance around local food makes sense here. It will be especially sweet if it returns some of the jobs and sustenance to this hardworking corner of Cleveland.