At lunchtime, diners from all walks of life converge on Midtown Global Market.

Hospital workers in scrubs scarf down Vietnamese noodles. Men clad in business suits sip on Mexican Coca-Cola. A line snakes around Safari Express, an African restaurant.

“The Global Market has slowly started turning the corner,” said Manny Gonzalez, who owns Manny’s Tortas, a Mexican restaurant in the market. “It’s getting better and better, thanks to the support of the neighborhood and the city.”

The indoor market on Lake Street in south Minneapolis has come a long way since its inception seven years ago when tenant turnover and squabbling among its business owners largely characterized the mood of its operations.

Today, the market — which sells food, clothing, books and ethnic goods — appears to be on the cusp of a real economic boom, as it attracts thousands of visitors a day from south Minneapolis and other parts of the Twin Cities. Mayor R.T. Rybak recently lauded the market as one of the city’s key achievements in his tenure as mayor.

The market has achieved its original goals, which included reducing the crime in the Phillips neighborhood, providing a cultural hub for residents and launching small businesses. Now it is focused on the next level: becoming a first stop for suburbanites and tourists who want to see the diversity Minneapolis has to offer.

“It’s not a reinvention,” said Becky George, the Global Market’s marketing director. “But it’s a shot in the arm to keep the momentum going.”

That push will come from the more than 40 entrepreneurs who occupy the market, about 60 percent of whom are original tenants. The tough times and early adversity have allowed the businesses at the market to cooperate better, Gonzalez said.

“It’s the business owner’s mentality,” he said. “A lot of business owners get frustrated because there’s no business and they just quit. ... The businesses that survived have a little more vision, and they’re willing to work to make this Global Market happen.”

Recent successes include Kitchen in the Market, a shared commercial kitchen for caterers and other professional chefs. It started as a stall in 2008 and has expanded to a large space in the corner of the market. Its cooking classes have attracted crowds from around the metro, and it has supported other merchants in the market by using ingredients from their shops.

The market also is drawing media attention from around the country, with the Food Network paying a visit to Sonora Grill last year. Salty Tart Bakery’s Michelle Gayer has been nominated for three national James Beard food awards, including a 2013 nomination for best chef in the Midwest.

Thirteen businesses in the market also are represented in the Minnesota State Fair, giving them exposure throughout the state, George said.

“They have the potential to be some of the great food all-stars in the country,” Rybak said. “And they choose to be in the Global Market and to now expand. ... Who would have ever guessed that when we walked into a vacant building filled with bat dung?”

Point of pride for the neighborhood

Indeed, the area is a far cry from 20 years ago, when the area at Lake Street and Chicago Avenue S. was considered destitute.

“It was just a place to come and look for prostitutes, narcotics, you know, bathhouses and massage parlors,” said Lt. Dan May of the Minneapolis Police Department. “I would’ve thought anyone who went down there was crazy. Now I wouldn’t think twice about it.”

In 2003, the city of Minneapolis began searching for a use for the vacant Sears building on Lake Street. Latino business owners and neighborhood groups helped convince city officials that the building should be preserved and reflect the diversity of the area and the entrepreneurial spirit of the businesses on Lake Street. From there, Midtown Global Market opened in 2006 and helped decrease crime in the surrounding neighborhood.

“We noticed in the first three years after the project was completed that crime dropped over 25 percent in a quarter-mile radius of the Chicago-Lake intersection,” Minneapolis City Council Member Gary Schiff said.

Today, the market — a collaboration of three nonprofit groups — serves as a cultural center for a diverse neighborhood. While it can see up to 4,000 people on a typical day, that number can swell to 10,000 on Martin Luther King Day or the Chinese New Year, said Jeff Alexander, the market’s real estate director.

The market also puts on cultural events at least once a month to mark holidays, promote ethnic food or celebrate the multiculturalism of the neighborhood.

“When I was growing up, most of the merchants [in the neighborhood] looked like me,” Rybak said. “They don’t today. ... The entrepreneurs look like the face of the globe. We’re a different city that’s in many ways dramatically better because of our globalization, and there’s nowhere better that says that than the Global Market.”

The market had a rough patch around its third or fourth year, Alexander said. Tenants association meetings were tense, with businesses blaming one another for slow foot traffic. Many entrepreneurs left the market, leaving empty stalls that stood out. Even now, a former fish market blights the space across from Manny’s Tortas, its seashell-adorned pillars and vacated lobster tank calling attention to a failed business.

About five of the 50 spaces in the market are without a permanent tenant, Alexander said.

To the suburbs and beyond

The market’s next challenge will be to launch itself beyond its original, limited base — more than a quarter of the daily traffic still comes from workers from Allina Health, which is headquartered in the same building.

“I don’t think a lot of people know about this place,” said Allina employee Rahne VanDell, who eats lunch at the market almost every day. “I never hear about it outside of here.”

There are certainly marketing challenges that come with the territory, George said. The market would love to have billboards and prominent advertising in the suburbs, but it would have to find the money first.

“We hope that we have funding sources each year, but in the nonprofit sector we know we have competition,” she said.

In addition, George said the neighborhood’s former seedy reputation still lingers in some people’s minds.

For now, a lot of the marketing strategy focuses on tour groups. The market has partnered with several schools and summer groups to show kids around, as well as with tourism associations like Meet Minneapolis and Explore Minnesota.

Dave Larson first visited the market two years ago through a tour, and he became so enamored with the place that he stops by every time he’s in Minneapolis.

Larson, who lives about an hour west of the market in Waconia, said he cherishes the chance to eat camel meat or a spicy goat wrap.

“I love it,” he said. “Just to be completely blunt, the town where I’m at is very homogeneous. I think it’s 95 percent white. So I love seeing the whole world in one location.”

George said she hopes the market can continue to push itself as a unique destination where merchants from all over the world come together.

It can only get easier now that the market has the clout to attract top-quality, renowned restaurants and retailers. 

“Now we have the luxury of being able to do that because we’ve proven ourselves,” George said.

Celia Ampel • 612-673-4642