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What would you do in this space? The story of Marty's Market

Regina Koetters first conceived of Marty’s Market—the Strip District’s new specialty food store and café—as a community gathering place. It had to be comfortable and inviting, and beyond that, it had to engage people to think as much as to shop.

“There’s a real clamoring among people these days to feel connected to their communities, to feel connected to the business that they buy from, and to other members in their community,”  says 34-year-old Koetters, owner of the store and also a Lieutentant Commander in the Navy Reserve.

Opened two weeks ago, with a Grand Opening scheduled for August 18th, Marty's Market was buzzing on a recent week day with a steady stream of customers, from those enjoying lunch in the café to shoppers buying produce or fresh meats or gelato to coffee drinkers with their laptops.

Koetters, a bright spirit who radiates confidence, wore the same black apron as the rest of the team and spoke with customers, food distributors, and employees, never in one place for very long. A mild breeze blew through the market, proof of her design concept to bring the outdoors in, and the indoors out.

Marty’s is located on the ground level of a parking garage, in 2/3 of the space that had formerly been the Right by Nature grocery store.  But this market is not only smaller, its also much sleeker with a striking urban contemporary design, from the bright green and silver paint and logo to the flood of daylight that brightens the interior.

Koetters has replaced outer walls with glass garage-style doors that open to sidewalk seating on the café side; in the front, large windows open the modern coffee bar to serve customers streetside. Instead of being walled in, guests are surrounded by views of the Strip and the varied brick and steel skyline of distant Downtown Pittsburgh.

Koetters plans cooking demonstrations and tastings, such as a cheese-tasting the evening of August 2--around the center workspace/island where upside-down colanders overhead—originating from other food places in the Strip--serve as lighting. That's also the space where customers line up to order before sitting down at the counter, or long community seating tables or smaller café tables.

The menu changes daily. Recently lunch included numerous items, from roast beef with arugula Panini to a fresh chopped salad with figs, avocado and chicken. (Both tested by Pop City and highly recommended.)

Weekend brunches might include an heirloom omelette with tomatoes, mushrooms and blue cheese served with fried potatoes and crunchy bread—or thick French toast, or fresh farm eggs any style along with fresh-squeezed orange juice.

So given the focus on local and fresh food, it might surprise you to know that Koetters is new to both food and retail. Yet she has approached this challenge like any other, by researching and learning as much as possible.

Why did she take this on? “To strengthen the region’s food system,” she says.  “I sincerely believe that food infrastructure is a key component to our region’s future prosperity or failure.”

But there’s more to it than that.  Since she was a kid growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, Koetters has been driven by a simple slogan: “Make a difference.”

She hopes Marty’s can be a catalyst for investment in the city, and the Strip.  But she’d also like to raise awareness about Pittsburgh’s food system—from its farm lands and green houses, to growers and chefs.

“I would like to improve the quality of life for people, whether they have a direct impact on the food system, are tangentially connected, or just consumers,” she says. “People feel better, they function better, when they eat well.”

Coming to Pittsburgh
In 2007 Koetters, who studied ship design at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, was an instructor at the University of Michigan teaching classes for the Navy. There  she earned an MBA and a master’s in real estate development. But she realized she wanted something different than what the Navy was offering, an opportunity to be more creative.

Growing up, Koetters says she was driven to serve.  She was drawn to the military, in part, because she imagined herself solving problems and affecting lives.  And she envisioned a post-military career that involved public service, or architecture and historic preservation.

So when Koetters began to actually plan life after the Navy, she wanted to find a city where she could have the greatest impact.  She began a nationwide search, researching business trends in cities from Washington D.C. and Baltimore, to Seattle, Denver, and Phoenix.  But the most potential, and warmest response, seemed to come from Pittsburgh.

“After I did all this reading, I started writing those business leaders and asked if they would give me some time to talk,” Koetters says.  Only one person of dozens she contacted turned her down. “Pittsburgh made time for me, and that told me I can really do something there.”

Koetters worked for a time with TREK Development Group on an initiative to renovate old homes, and build new housing, in the Hill District. She applied to and was accepted into Leadership Pittsburgh's Leadership Development Initiative.

But then she received a message from the Navy. They needed her in Iraq.

Koetters could have turned it down; she had signed a contract stating that she wouldn’t be recalled within her first two years in the reserves.  And although her orders were vague—simply “Iraq”—she decided to go.

“I was like—they need me, they’re calling me up, here I go,” she says. She felt she had more to give.

In Iraq, she managed the country's largest airbase, Al Asad, overseeing day-to-day operations of construction projects, squadron stations, fueling operations, and helping to train Iraqi air force pilots.

After a year in Iraq, she returned to Pittsburgh ready to continue the work she had begun.

In 2010, she began working as project manager for the Allegheny Valley Railroad’s initiative to reintroduce passenger rail transit along the Allegheny River.  Part of the Green Boulevard initiative, Koetters says working with the URA and Riverlife was energizing, and helped her to readjust to civilian life.

While immersed in topics of transit efficiency, grade overhauls, and storm water management, she was asked to study why Right by Nature had failed and what it would take for a similar business to succeed in that space. After she issued that report, she was asked to start the business. Marty's Market—named after her dad—was born. 

Koetters says that in all her years studying real estate development and urban planning, the role of food had never really come up.  But it’s now on people’s minds, she says, the intersections between agricultural land, the food system, and the health and stability of cities.

“I’m in food right now,” she says, “but I’m still doing the same overarching thing, which is doing something here to catalyze reinvestment, to leverage the existing footprint of the city rather than expand it. It just happens right now I’m doing  it through food.”

Koetters has surrounded herself with a team of experts, from a chef and a butcher, to a network of organic farmers.  She is relying on this model of shared knowledge for Marty’s to succeed.

“What I’ve been doing for the last 12 years is just letting people become their personal best, letting them share their talents,” she says. “It doesn’t matter where it’s been, it’s just about unlocking what is within people already.”

Mary's Market is located at 2301 Smallman Street, in the Strip District. Open Monday through Friday, 11am to 7pm; Saturday and Sunday, 9am to 7pm.  412-586-7177.

Andrew Moore is the development news editor of Pop City. Tracy Certo contributed to this story.

Photos: Top, Regina Koetters at coffee bar, other photos of market and cafe. Photos by Tracy Certo.

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