BY JEN KENT | PHOTOS BY DAVID SZYMANSKI
More than 15 years ago, West Allis native Mark Lutz, a trained mechanical engineer, tapped inspiration from his childhood treks to the neighborhood cheese shop to pursue a surprising new path.
Lutz, who owns the West Allis Cheese & Sausage Shoppe with his wife, Linda, says he grew up visiting the Becher Street shop, which first debuted as a storefront for Merkts Cheese Company in the 1960s. The Merkt family sold the place in the ’80s, and, Lutz explains, he and Linda purchased it from its former owner in 2002, aiming to revive the business he so loved as a kid.
“Everybody in the neighborhood would just come at Christmas,” Lutz explains. “I called [the owner] when it closed. I pretty much bought a building; it wasn’t much of a business.”
The Lutzs gradually restored the shop to its former glory, securing a booth in the Milwaukee Public Market when it opened in 2005 as a secondary location. When food service at the market location — think sandwiches, chili-cheese fries and house-made mac and cheese — proved popular, the couple added a café and deli to the West Allis shop in 2014.
Lutz believes that diversifying their business and its offerings is key. In September, he’ll open Becher Meats, an old-fashioned butcher shop located just west of the West Allis shop. Becher Meats will sell house-made sausages and in-house smoked meats, as well as the usual butcher shop fare. Lutz says he hopes to emulate the meat quality established by the now-closed Grasch Foods.
|Save the Date
Eat West Allis will host its third annual Curds and Kegs event Wednesday, May 22, from 6:30 to 9 p.m. at the West Allis Farmers Market. Featuring more than 90 varieties of cheese, 50 craft beers, 20 wines and artisanal meats, proceeds from the event will benefit the Holy Assumption Food Pantry and support the creation of a dog park in West Allis. Advance tickets can be purchased for $20 at the West Allis Cheese and Sausage Shoppe or at the gate for $30
“I want to be at a Sendik’s — or maybe slightly under — price point, but at Grasch’s quality,” he adds. “The butcher that’s coming on board has been doing it since he was 15. He’s 51 now.” The introduction of Becher Meats will also free up valuable real estate in the West Allis shop’s retail area, as Lutz plans to move the meat coolers to the butcher shop. A 12-stool cheese bar will occupy the space the coolers leave behind.
And Lutz isn’t stopping there. He recently bought the property east of the West Allis shop too, where he eventually plans to open a beer garden. Patrons can enjoy fresh brats from Becher Meats or order from Wild Roots, a nearby restaurant that had its soft opening in March. Lutz owns the building that houses Wild Roots and leases the space to chef/farmer duo and restaurant owners Thi Cao (formerly of Buckley’s) and Bryan De Stefanis (of Big City Greens and Sourced in Nature).
Though he’d never say so, Lutz is perhaps to credit for the revitalization of West Allis’ culinary scene in recent years. In addition to managing his own businesses and properties, he launched Eat West Allis, a cooperative group of restaurants and specialty food retailers that promotes culinary tourism in West Allis. The group hosts near-monthly events, with West Allis Cheese & Sausage Shoppe often as a sponsor, to draw new faces to the city and celebrate Eat West Allis members. And while Lutz says the city now handles the group’s website operations and social media sites, he’s no stranger to e-commerce and online platforms. But he very clearly prefers the in-person, brick-and-mortar approach. “I’d rather grow the business over the counter,” he says.
The approach is clearly working. MKE