The warehouse was formerly the Axton Candy & Tobacco Co. | Courtesy of Jefferson County PVA

Correction appended.

Mike Safai is determined to start an open-air market in Louisville. It’s not a matter of will but a matter of when, he told Insider Louisville.

“A market is what I missed when I moved here,” said Safai, who has family in Seattle, home of the famous Pike Place Market.

Safai, owner of the local coffee roastery Safai Coffee, bought 900 E. Kentucky St., the former Axton Candy & Tobacco Co., for $1.9 million in July 2016. He moved his coffee packaging operations into the building and brought on Wiltshire Pantry and Hawthorn Beverage Group as tenants.

The 51,035-square-foot warehouse is more than big enough for the three businesses, so Safai has decided to start a brewery, which he will run as a for-profit business, and a nonprofit open-air market that will give farmers and other food vendors a place to sell fresh produce and prepared goods. It also will give residents of the Shelby Park and Smoketown neighborhoods a nearby place to buy food if they don’t want to travel to Germantown or the Highlands for groceries.

Current plans call for some 25 indoor stalls for vendors and space that can accommodate 35 vendors outdoors in two alleys surrounding the warehouse, Safai said. The market also would include a small stage for performances, how-to seminars and other community-focused events, and four stalls with shared kitchen and cooler space for restaurants to have a presence at the market.

The stalls and stage would be Phase 1 of the open-air market project. Phase 2 would include building a second floor mezzanine, where more vendors could set up. The mezzanine would feature a demonstration kitchen, where Safai said he envisions local chefs hosting cooking classes using food found at the market to promote healthy eating and to show people how they can prepare meals on a budget.

Safai wants the market to be Louisville’s version of Findlay Market, albeit smaller, at least to start. The 162-year-old Findlay Market, located in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, has more than 40 vendors who sell food and other products year-round, as well as more than 70 seasonal vendors. The market has an estimated 1.2 million visitors a year, according to the market’s website.

“If I get half of that coming in here — half — it’s going to make people start moving in, opening up a shop across the street because of the traffic,” Safai said. “My goal is in five, six years, this whole block will be new businesses.”

The Shelby Park and Smoketown neighborhoods are considered food deserts because there are no grocery stores nor farmer’s markets in the neighborhoods. The nonprofit New Roots does host a Fresh Stop Market at Coke Memorial United Methodist Church on East Breckinridge Street from June to November that offers residents a place to buy fresh produce on a sliding scale.

Both neighborhoods are still struggling to fill vacant properties and to lower crime rates, but both have made strides. Nonprofit Access Ventures is heavily involved in community strengthening efforts, and businesses such as Yesternook, Scarlet’s Bakery, Studio Kremer Architects, Good Folks Coffee and Great Flooding Brewing Co. have moved in during the past few years.

“I see the potential, number one,” Safai said of the neighborhoods, and I think if you don’t come here because you’re scared, this neighborhood would never change. Somebody’s got to take the first step, and you take the first step, people are going to follow.”

Susan Hershberg, owner of Wiltshire Pantry, said she wanted to co-locate in Shelby Park because of the potential impact on the area and Safai’s vision.

When she opened Wiltshire Pantry on Barret Avenue: “I could have moved to a strip mall in J-town and paid a fraction of the rent, but I didn’t want to be in a strip mall, I wanted to be in a neighborhood. I want to be able to be involved and engaged,” Hershberg said. “You have this ripple effect in your community if you engage.”

There is a speed bump though, Safai said. He estimates that it will cost him $500,000 to retrofit the warehouse, including adding barn doors that connect the market to the sidewalk, buying coolers for cold goods, and building the individual stalls with sinks and a shared kitchen space.

Safai currently is seeking a grant or other funding to try to reduce his personal investment in the market.

“I need to get my monthly costs down,” Safai said. But “I am doing it either way.”

He estimated that is would take four or five months to complete Phase 1 of the open-air market after the funding is secured and the city building permits are issued.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated how old Findlay Market is. It opened in 1855.

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Caitlin Bowling
Louisville native Caitlin Bowling has covered the local restaurant and retail scene since 2014. After graduating from the Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, Caitlin got her start at a newspaper in the mountains of North Carolina where she won multiple state awards for her reporting. Since returning to Louisville, she’s written for Business First and Insider Louisville, winning awards for health and business reporting and becoming a go-to source for business news. In addition to restaurants and retail business, Caitlin covers real estate, economic development and tourism. Email Caitlin at [email protected]