Middlebrook Mercantile offers unique gathering space
Story by Tracy Dickinson
Photography By Claire Zellmer Photography, courtesy Diligent Development
Featured in July/August 2022
Less than two years ago, the first families began moving into Iowa’s first agrihood just south of Des Moines (see “A New Hometown,” Welcome Home, September 2020). Since then, the Middlebrook development has continued to grow, and residents and visitors are connecting in ways they haven’t before. Now they can do that at The Merc.
Connecting to the neighborhood
Robert Wilke, manager of the Middlebrook Mercantile, says he sees The Merc as the social hub of the neighborhood. “Even in the first few weeks after opening, people who live here in Middlebrook were coming in regularly. We were already getting to know them and what they liked to order,” he says. “That’s our goal. We want this to be the place you can come and hang out and just enjoy your friends and neighborhood.”
Although it’s a relatively new concept in land development, the agrihood model is really a nod to the past, a time when rural and urban were not so far apart. Middlebrook’s Merc bridges that divide, offering a space for residents and visitors to gather for a drink, to rest after a ride on the nearby Great Western Bike Trail, or simply to enjoy the view of the Middlebrook Farm across the road.
The building, just over 2,100 square feet, was once the town’s one-room schoolhouse. Today it’s an open, welcoming space with cozy tables, an expansive patio, and a well-stocked bar.
“Since the school closed in 1969, the building has been through several changes,” Wilke says. “It’s been a restaurant twice, but it’s never been anything like this. The Merc is like nothing I’ve ever done in my 30 years in the restaurant business.”
The challenge of creating a place that would be an extension of home for residents and a welcoming social spot for visitors that highlights the neighborhood in both its service and its product selection was an appealing idea to Wilke. “I loved my previous job. But the idea of connecting to people and to the neighborhood and the community, just wrapping my mind around the concept, I wanted to be a part of it. And look at the view I get to see every day. Who wouldn’t want to do this?”
Connecting to local resources
Wilke has brought that excitement to The Merc. That excitement is reflected in the enthusiasm of his staff members and in the connections they’re making with Middlebrook residents and with visitors.
“We provide the wine and beer for the Fridays at the Farm events all summer,” Wilke says. “That’s been a great way to introduce The Merc to people who aren’t familiar with Middlebrook.” Held each Friday evening at Middlebrook Farm, Fridays at the Farm offers visitors an opportunity to purchase local produce and other products, listen to live music, and socialize.
The Merc takes the same approach to its product selection. Most retail items are locally sourced in some way or hand-picked from small farms and vineyards across the country. A gathering space rather than a restaurant, The Merc offers grab-and-go meal and snack options from several local companies along with beer from area breweries and other beverage options as well as a full bar.
“We have charcuterie boxes from Grazing Table in Norwalk, salads and hummus from Grateful Chef that use Middlebrook Farm ingredients whenever possible, and all sorts of local snacks and sweets,” Wilke says.
Even the Gorge Wine Company wines from Oregon have a local connection. “One of our owners is also part owner in a vineyard in Oregon. We had a chance to learn about the whole process, to tour the vineyard and see what they’re doing, and that’s really informed how we can talk to our customers about the wines we offer,” Wilke says.
Photos of the vineyard grace the walls of The Merc, connecting this turn-of-the-century Midwest building to a long-held agricultural tradition thousands of miles away.
Connecting to the wider community
According to Kalen Ludwig of Diligent Development, owners of The Merc, “We really wanted to create a place for community gatherings. We tossed around a number of ideas for the building before settling on this concept.”
The town already had a distillery and a tap room, popular with both locals and visitors. Diligent had not originally intended to manage retail projects at Middlebrook, but when the vineyard connection arose, the seeds for The Merc began to grow.
As the Diligent team discussed ideas, team members realized that what they envisioned was something they’d never seen before. So they designed it themselves.
“The Merc can be rented out for events. So it can really be that gathering space for the neighborhood and for residents and businesses throughout the area,” Ludwig says.
In its first weeks after opening, The Merc hosted bridal and baby showers, birthday parties, and corporate events. Planning collaborative events, from craft classes to wine tastings with local artists and vendors, is in process.
Middlebrook’s 900 acres at the edge of Cumming has already managed to bridge the gap between urban and rural, growing the neighborhood without taking away the small-town feel. “Many home buyers today are looking for neighborhoods that offer that small-town concept without giving up connections and amenities of city life,” Ludwig says. “We’ve worked hard to create that and to maintain a collaborative relationship with city leaders and residents.”
The Merc is at the heart of that concept, bringing all those connections together in one unique space. •