By Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host Published Oct 16, 2019 at 10:01 AM

It's time for Dining Month, presented by Deer District and its spooky Halloween-themed alter ego, Fear District. Throughout the month of October, we'll be serving up fun and fascinating content about all things food. The signature dish, however, is our 2019 Best of Dining poll, who's winners we will dish out all month long. Get hungry, Milwaukee!

Fairgrounds Coffee & Tea will open its doors to the public, debuting its first Wisconsin cafe in the Yankee Hill Neighborhood, on Wednesday, Oct. 23.

The cafe, which brings together dozens of the nation’s finest craft coffee roasters and specialty teas under one roof, is situated on the ground level of the Vantage on the Park Apartments in the former Park East Hotel at 916 E. State St.

Designed by Chicago-based design firm Barker/Nestor in partnership with Ingrassia Design, the 79-seat space aims to offer guests a vibrant, coffeehouse and bar setting with a variety of seating options, from traditional tables and counters to soft, lounge-style accommodations.

On the menu

Fairgrounds was founded on the premise that magic and excitement are born of choice and that variety lends itself to the guest experience. As a result, they feature a diverse collection of specialty coffee from roasters across the country. Among the roasters featured at the Milwaukee cafe are Colectivo Coffee, Spyhouse Coffee Roasters (Minneapolis), Verve (Los Angeles), Dark Matter Coffee (Chicago) and Stumptown (Portland, Oregon).

And, because not every consumer drinks coffee, Fairgrounds aims to bring just as much innovation to its tea program, which is executed with the assistance of Milwaukee's Rishi Tea.

At the Milwaukee cafe, guests will find a robust tea selection including three types of matcha (organic, ceremonial grade organic and imperial grade), 11 types of whole leaf tea (available hot or iced) and tea-based lattes including chai and turmeric ginger.

The same is true of their elixirs, a collection of creative drinks using coffee, tea, coconut and chocolate. Offerings include Flower Power Milk tea (matcha, jasmine butterfly pea flower tea, jasmine simple syrup and a choice of whole or coconut milk); the Vosges Coconut Charcoal Elixir (activated charcoal, 100 percent cacao chocolate, coconut puree and coconut water, served hot or iced); and the Spiced Pear Matcha Latte (matcha, spiced pear, cinnamon, vanilla, almond milk).

Meanwhile cold brews, kombuchas and sparkling teas will be served on tap, matcha will be whipped to order, and pour-overs will utilize cutting edge technology which ensures a more consistent cup of coffee. 

On the food side, Fairgrounds offers an all-day chef-driven menu featuring a variety of breakfast sandwiches (with or without eggs), avocado toast, a lox platter, grain bowls and salads and a variety of sandwiches (from roast beef to roasted vegetables).

Guests will also find fun sides and snacks like funnel cake fries, mini corn dogs and giant pretzels served with spicy mustard and housemade Stumptown Nitro Cold Brew cheese dip.

And no one is excluded. There are gluten-free, dairy-free and vegan options, along with a children’s menu featuring options like grilled cheese and tomato soup, buttered noodles and sliders.

Why Milwaukee?

Founded by Chicago-based entrepreneur Michael Schultz, Fairgrounds Coffee & Tea is a brand which aims to create authentic experiences by harnessing the powers of choice, community and stellar hospitality.

"We celebrate diversity in our brand … in our design, in our offerings and in our people," he says. "The brand itself – Fairgrounds – resonates with individuals in very different ways. Maybe it’s a memory formed from eating fried candy bars at the Minnesota State Fair. Or a recollection of the first time your parents gave you a fistful of tickets to spend at the Midway. But everyone comes to a similar place in a very different way."

"In that way, the Fairground brand tenets are consistent," he adds. "But when we are searching for a location, we really look for places that have been overlooked, but which have great history behind them."

(PHOTO: Julie Newell Photography)

Schultz says it was a serendipitous drive along the Lakefront that sparked his interest in putting Wisconsin’s first cafe in the Yankee Hill neighborhood.

"I was meeting with my friend Josh [Kaiser], who owns Rishi," he says. "He was taking me along the lakefront one day and I thought, ‘This is stunning… just stunning.’ There were all of these young people walking to work, and the area was so vibrant, with so much energy."

The experience sparked a chat with Michael Klein of Klein Development, Jeno Cataldo and Derek Schneider (who had acquired the former hotel in fall of 2017) about the retail space on the ground floor of the proposed Vantage on the Park apartments, a conversation which – ultimately – brought Fairgrounds to Milwaukee.

Schultz says that when guests walk into the cafe, the goal is to make them comfortable and happy.

"We offer choices in terms of seating, in terms of beverages. We’ve spent a lot of time creating an experience that people will love," he says. "And when we design our spaces, it doesn’t matter what my thought is as an owner or restaurateur. It matters what the customers think. So we test out our couches. We scour the earth for the most comfortable chairs. And we give people things they don’t find everywhere."

"The idea is that you can get real food and beverages that are thoughtful and good in a place where you can spend either 20 minutes or two hours," he adds.

"When we started this years ago, we disrupted the industry by providing a place where you had choices in food and beverage… that also had an emphasis on hospitality and service. And today, we are looking forward to bringing the community a great central gathering place to eat, drink and socialize."

Beginning Oct. 23, Fairgrounds Coffee & Tea will be open Monday through Friday from 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from from 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host

Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club. 

When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.