Madison native, born and raised in the arts, and passionate about connecting creatives to places and outlets, Meghan Blake-Horst is leading the city’s efforts to reinvent the way we eat and shop for art and outdoor crafts amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Blake-Horst, who grew up in the Atwood neighborhood on the East Side, has been a varsity athlete, camp counselor, activity coordinator for adults with developmental disabilities, coach and arts entrepreneur, and served on boards municipal and community before becoming the third in the city. – still sales coordinator at the end of 2016.
In this position, she manages the diverse line of food carts, sidewalk cafes, arts and crafts sales around the Dane County Farmer’s Market, vendor sales, game day sales at Badger football games and other city-wide street vending activity.
The arts are woven into his life. Her mother, Sarah Whelan Blake, a professional actress, raised her daughter behind the scenes of the city’s theater scene. Her father, Jack, was a writer who worked in public relations. Her siblings sang or were in local bands, and as a child she listened to practice in their basement or the old OK’s Corral bar Downtown and other venues. She started doing artistic gymnastics around the age of 3.
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Blake-Horst graduated from East High School, then UW-Eau Claire with a Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology, and was a varsity gymnast, serving as captain her senior year. She has coached the sport at many levels, including this season for United Gymnastics, a combination of East and La Follette high schools, which produced a state champion.
In 2004, she opened an art gallery a block from her childhood home called Absolutely Art and ran it for a decade, representing over 200 local artists. The gallery hosted the second smallest free library in the world and became the only retail outlet for them on the globe. Then she and a partner opened MadCity Bazzar, hosting pop-up flea and farmer’s markets, involving local food carts at events.
She was involved in many community organizations and helped start the Friends of Madison Public Market.
In 2016, Blake-Horst joined more than 400 people seeking the position of sales coordinator that Warren Hansen held for 19 years before his retirement. In a touch of karma, Blake-Horst and Hansen’s mother had played King and Queen in a three-month run of a local play 23 years earlier.
Blake-Horst is married to Geoff Blake-Horst, a teacher at La Follette high school, and the couple have two children and three cats, including one who seems to enjoy the airtime at online town hall meetings.
What were your aspirations for the programs you oversee?
I saw that my role was to expand our street vending program primarily from downtown to other areas of the city. I knew that city-licensed vendors came from diverse backgrounds and were an integral part of our Madison culture. This role has allowed me to showcase this important part of our community, our economy and our sense of belonging.
What has been the impact of the pandemic on sales?
The pandemic has had a huge impact on all distributors. There was no Dane County Farmer’s Market around the square, so no arts and crafts vendors came to sell on Saturdays across from the market. Restaurants and bars were closed for a while, then had reduced capacity, and customers’ confidence in being in public with others outside their homes disappeared. The food carts were considered “take-out” establishments, but there was no one there and access to their basic kitchens was limited, so their business disappeared. All of these vendors had to pivot quickly and create new revenue streams and ways to connect with customers. We have seen incredible creativity and collaborations even in such uncertainty.
What were the main movements of the city?
One of the first things we did was remove all selling fees for all license types. The city also refunded all fees that had been paid for the 2020 selling season. It provided much-needed financial relief. The Steatery program was #1 for restaurants and bars. It really kept them in business.
For food carts, my office partnered with the Parks Division to create the Carts in Parks program that breaks down barriers to selling food carts in city parks. We work with neighborhood resource teams, neighborhood groups, and organizations that help vendors of color connect with our city parks to grow their businesses and provide access to food.
What defines a great food basket?
I think it’s in the eye of the customer. Each person has their own favorite cart based on their food tastes, experience and cultural ties. The most successful food carts I’ve seen are consistent with their offerings and selling location, create foods they love, and have a fun cart that grabs attention. People are connected to the food and the person behind the business. Their story is very important to share. It’s more than a meal. It’s a connection to the company, the operator and how they got to where they are today.
What have we learned about the importance of sidewalk cafes and how can they evolve?
I think we had a radical change in the way we see public space. Parking before the pandemic was a big priority for businesses and customers. That has changed and people want to prioritize outdoor seating and other ways to use our public space for more than cars. It is a delicate balance between safety, accessibility, convenience, commercial and community needs. There will still be things to review and sort out, but we’ve come a long way in a very short time.
Photos: Dane County Farmers Market returns to Capitol Square