As rain poured down from dark skies Wednesday, the future home of the Madison Public Market was alive with excitement as visitors got a flavor of what the long-anticipated East Side venue will be like when it opens in two years.

Over the course of a two-hour open house at what is now the city’s Fleet Services building at 200 N. First St., the large room with 20-foot ceilings was almost always full. More than 1,000 people attended the event, according to Madison Public Market Foundation estimates.

This was the first time the public could tour the space, which has been a long time coming. Advocates have been pushing for the project for at least 14 years, with delays in part stemming from choosing a location.

Set to open in fall 2021, the market will be a year-round destination featuring entrepreneurs offering fresh produce, culturally diverse and locally prepared food and handcrafted items.

At the open house, 15 vendors had stations with an array of local products, including jewelry, coffee, pet food, clothing, purses, lotions, lip balm and takes on foods from around the world.

The smell of fried empanadas reached every corner of the bright, open space. Attendees buzzed with energetic conversation as they waited in lines for free samples from diverse vendors.

Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway was among the attendees, talking with residents and waiting in line for a taste.

“I have not tried any of the food yet. I missed my chance because now all the lines are so long,” Rhodes-Conway joked near the start of the event.

The market is an exciting addition for the city, she said, and it’s “a good sign” that so many Madisonians showed up.

Ald. Mike Verveer, 4th District, said he was surprised by such a high turnout, especially given the rain, cold temperatures, construction and limited parking.

“Food is a big attraction, apparently,” Verveer said.

Attendees filled out sticky notes to give feedback on design plans for the building, which were presented on posters.

“This really is a community project,” said Amanda White, who works in community engagement for the Madison Public Market Foundation. “It’s for the community, by the community.”

Attendees had their pick of free food samplings ranging from chocolate-covered strawberries to cheesy herb biscuits to mango yogurt drinks.

Madison residents Bri Raymer, 29, and Kim Kroeger, 33, chatted while waiting for chicken, mac ‘n cheese and cabbage samples from Melly Mel’s Deli and Catering.

“This one’s really good,” Kroeger said of a flourless chocolate torte from Ugly Apple, a vendor that sells breakfast food made from primarily local seconds and overstock. “It like melts in your mouth.”

“It’s the right amount of crispy with the right softness,” Raymer added.

Once Kroeger and Raymer got to the front of the line, they delighted in Melly Mel’s moist chicken and cabbage that tasted like dessert.

Terry Cohn, 68, and her husband Michael Johns, 68, stood off to the side eating their samples. They have lived in Madison for around 40 years and plan to come to the market every week once it is finished.

The building has a “really nice open feeling,” Cohn said. Johns added he appreciates that the city is reusing the industrial space.

The two have been to public markets in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Seattle, Milwaukee and Europe. Cohn believes the market can help the East Side thrive.

“I think it will be a real bonus for this part of the city,” she said.

Vendor T.J. DiCiaula, whose shop SuperCharge! Foods is down the street from the market site, said he believes the market will “beautify” the neighborhood. DiCiaula hopes to have a juice bar in the hub of the market.

At the open house, SuperCharge! Foods offered samples of a juice made from wheat grass.

Yakub Kazi, another vendor, served a smooth mango yogurt drink with “Alphonso” mangoes from India — which he said are some of the best mangoes in the world. Kazi, a chef from Australia who is originally from India, also served chicken marinated in “secret spices” from Australia.

Kazi hopes his restaurant, Ember Foods Unique Food Connection, can have a permanent spot in the market. It would be his first location.

“This is my dream, to start a business,” Kazi said.

Vendor Sandra Morris, who sells Ernie’s African Kick Sauce, said the market is “the brink” of everything she’s been working toward the past two years. She said with her sauce “everything is going to be kicking in here.”

Morris said she was enthralled to see so many people around her as passionate as she is.

“We’re human and the one thing we all have in common is food,” Morris said. “The city market is going to bring all of us together.”

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Emily Hamer is a general assignment reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal. She joined the paper in April 2019 and was formerly an investigative reporting intern at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.