Big City Greens on the Lower East Side of Milwaukee. All photos by Joe Powell.

Milwaukee is the economic engine of the state, built on big industries and entrepreneurs. But as many large corporations and manufacturers disappeared locally and nationally in the waning decades of the 20th century, the question became how to reinvigorate the Rust Belt cities with grand ideas for new businesses. Perhaps the answer is instead to think small.

Big City Greens is proving that tiny can be huge in Milwaukee. Local native, Brian, met his wife, Deborah, after a stint out in California where they both learned about raising undersized, delicious plants. After moving back to central Wisconsin to be closer to family, they started BCG in an empty warehouse space on the Lower East Side.

The 25 different varieties of plants they grow downtown are in addition to the mushrooms and other goods they forage for on their farm up north. Racks and racks of little beds of fennel, carrots, and sunflowers stretch out under numerous grow lamps.

Though it’s hard to tell at this size, these are all normal versions of your average vegetables and cooking elements: they’re just harvested when still itty bitty. Even so, their little stature belies the giant taste still present. A single leaf from the tray of pea shoots tasted like a whole bowl of the green veggies.

And those who make a living out of taste have taken notice: there’s a regular beat of about 30 local chefs between Milwaukee and Madison who incorporate Big City Green’s bounty into their own dishes. Whether they’re buying a picked-container or a whole tray to trim on site, you can bet the taste will be fresh year-round.

The demand for just-harvested veggies even in the dead of winter has caused BCG’s sales to triple just this year. That’s help offset their relatively small operating costs: mostly electricity for the grow lights (16 hours per day), keeping the temperature around 70 with low humidity, and that infamous Lower East Side rent.

Brian’s hope is to start adding in fruit from his farm into his sales, as well as some more exotic fare like black garlic (which we were lucky enough to indulge in). You don’t have to be a chef to use Big City Green’s fresh accouterments in your own cooking: they can be found in some local groceries, as well as from BCG directly via their website or Facebook. Plus, there’s a weekly, year-round CSA.

Keep your eye out for Big City Greens next time you’re at your favorite local restaurant and prepare for your taste buds for big flavor in a small package.

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