The Merc at Middlebrook

Agrihood’s latest project is another first.

Less than two years ago, the first families began moving into Iowa’s first agrihood on the south edge of Cumming. Since then, the Middlebrook development has continued to expand, and residents and visitors are connecting in ways they haven’t before. The Middlebrook Mercantile, known as The Merc, is the latest addition to a growing list of unique offerings in the new neighborhood.

Restaurant and retail

Located in a building that was originally Cumming’s one-room schoolhouse, The Merc is 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,” says Robert Wilke, manager of The Merc. “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.”

According to Kalen Ludwig of Diligent Development, owners of The Merc, “We really wanted to create a place for community gatherings, and we tossed around a number of ideas for the building before settling on this concept.”

As the Diligent team discussed ideas, they realized that what they envisioned was something they’d never seen before. So they designed it themselves. When one of the Diligent Development team became part owner in a vineyard in Oregon, a new idea began to grow. The Merc became the opportunity to create a space that highlights local connections in unique ways. Wine from the Gorge Wine Company, although they come from Oregon, are one of those “local” offerings. Photos of the vineyard grace the walls around The Merc, connecting this turn-of-the-century Midwest building to a long-held agricultural tradition thousands of miles away.

The Merc takes the same approach to its other product selections. Most retail items are locally sourced in some way or handpicked 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, other beverage options, and 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.

Social events

Wilke 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. That’s our goal. We want this to be the place you can come and hang out and just enjoy your friends and neighborhood.”

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.

“We provide the wine and beer for the Fridays at the Farm events all summer,” Wilke says, “and 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 gatherings offer visitors an opportunity to purchase local produce and other products, listen to live music, and socialize. “The Merc can also be rented out for events,” says Ludwig. “It can really be that gathering space for the neighborhood and for residents and businesses throughout the area.”

In its first weeks after opening, The Merc hosted bridal and baby showers, birthday parties, and corporate events. The Diligent team is also in the process of planning collaborative events with local artists and vendors, from craft classes to wine tastings and more.

Neighborhood development

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 bike trail, or simply to enjoy the view of the Middlebrook Farm across the road. Middlebrook’s 900 acres at the edge of Cumming has already managed to bridge that gap between urban and rural, growing the neighborhood without taking away the small-town feel.

Peoples Company, along with Diligent Development and Groundbreaker Homes, anticipates breaking ground on its own corporate office space at Middlebrook in the next couple of years. The project is part of a planned “town square” on the southern edge of the development. The company has 4 acres of small commercial projects currently in the works as well.

“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.”

Along with regular events at Middlebrook Farm, The Merc is at the heart of that neighborhood philosophy, bringing all those connections together in one unique space.