© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

At Midwest Sad, expect sweets and snacks, seasoned with nostalgia

a cookie bar on a plate is covered in caramelized marshmallows
Courtesy of Sam Sandrin
Midwest Sad's s'mores bar.

A new bakery in town is serving up snacks and sweets infused with a heavy dose of nostalgia. Think broccoli salad, loaded with cheddar and bacon bits, and cookies studded with dollops of marshmallow fluff.

“It’s stuff that you can find at a cookout on the Fourth of July,” said Sam Sandrin, the owner of Midwest Sad.

The bakery’s name refers to SAD — seasonal affective disorder, that is — and honors the special way that nostalgic treats can lift one’s spirits. A Milwaukee native, Sandrin has worked multiple roles in the service industry for the last 15 years. Most recently, she was part of the teams at Pomona Cider Company and Hot Dish Pantry. Now, she’s eager to take what she’s learned and forge a healthier work culture in an often-punishing industry.

The small carryout bakery is running out of a commissary kitchen near Cathedral Square Park, which is shared by other small businesses including Tots on the Street and Sweetly Baked. For Sandrin, that’s meant she has a sense of community, despite running the business on her own.

Even when things are rough and she’s feeling “woe is me,” Sandrin said, “it’s like, ‘OK, we can do this. Woe is us.’”

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

a stainless steel service counter has signs "MIDWEST SAD"
Courtesy of Sam Sandrin
Midwest Sad is located in the lower level of 770 N. Jefferson St. in downtown Milwaukee.

Tell me about how you got here. How did you come to start up Midwest Sad on your own?

I've been in the industry for 15-16 years. I started at a place that's now closed — it was called the Open Hearth — as a dishwasher, busser, human. I was there for about a year and then the owner made me cry. Because I was a 15-year-old host wearing a black tie, and I hated it. So I left. Ever since then, I wanted to be in a place that didn't make me cry. So I've been trying to make that a goal in my life. I haven't succeeded yet because I do that to myself.

Being a very young woman in the kitchen is — it's different now than it was back then. I remember getting called “jailbait” when I was 17. And just groping and being harassed and all these horrible things.

Do you feel like coming up with your own operation was the culmination of your journey to create a culture that doesn't make you cry? 

Yes. Ironically, even though it's called Midwest Sad. Which “SAD,” like seasonal affective disorder is where that name actually comes from. Everything that makes you feel better, whether it be food, whether it be community, whether it be your coworkers, whatever that is, I want to encapsulate that completely into the brand of Midwest Sad.

What is it that you're trying to build here that you feel like you haven't been able to get in other places? 

A lot of people in the service industry kind of mask, and it's not necessarily intentional, but it's how we get through our day. It can be a toxic positivity. It sounds silly being like, “Oh, being positive, like, that's how everyone should live.” But that's just not the reality of the situation. I mean, every single day, we see different things happening in the world and to act like they don't exist is impossible. So being able to just be a person. Customers are not always right and trying to figure out the best way to exist in this time and place.

I want to make sure everyone's safe and open to be themselves and they don't have to be happy. I don't expect people to come here and have their life be their job. Your job should be the least interesting thing about you. I have so much passion for what I do. But at the end of the day, I want to live. I don't want to live to work. I want everyone that works for me, with me, as a member of my team and community, to just be themselves without fear of retribution or having to exist in a way that they're not supposed to. We're not supposed to be like this. We're supposed to be in a field of flowers, but it doesn't always work out that way! So it's easier to just be yourself then force it.

A blueberry muffin with clove icing.
Courtesy of Sam Sandrin
A blueberry muffin with clove icing.

I love that. So, Midwest Sad. You've said that it's about “emo nostalgia.” What does that mean to you?

I turn 30 this year so I'm not quite an elder millennial. Growing up, I remember going to Warped Tour every year for like 10 years. I remember going to shows at the Rave and the Miramar. All these very nostalgic places for millennials. And specifically in the Midwest community, pop punk and all these different variations of music really helped expand my thinking when I was growing up. Especially in community because there's a huge sense of community and music, especially in Milwaukee.

So just bringing those two things together. Like, yeah, I'm sad but I could also eat cake and be sad.

Talk about some of what you are making. What can people expect? 

It's stuff that you can find at a cookout on the Fourth of July. Potato salad and the broccoli, cauliflower, bacon, and cheese salad and stuff like that. You’re still filling up on food, but you're getting a sense of wonder from it. Not just like, “I'm going to have a tuna salad sandwich.” It's like, “Now let's make it fun.”

I'll be doing more bougie stuff like French macarons. I'll also be doing little succulent pots, which are really just dirt cups with piped succulents on them to make them cute.

Millennial dirt cake. 

Exactly. Millennial dirt cake. That's exactly what it is. I have an egg salad hoagie. That's egg salad, chili oil and shallots. None of the portion sizes are huge. It’s really good snacking sizes for lunch or catering or big events.

Apparently people really love Fluffernutter everything, which I thought was just a me thing. But I realize it's the Midwest. It's like a peanut butter cookie. I caramelize marshmallows, and it turns into a nougat-y, rich, buttery cookie. Those always sell out almost immediately.

brightly colored geode-like rock candy
Courtesy of Sam Sandrin
Sandrin's rock candy is infused with childhood memories of enjoying the candy at Milwaukee Public Museum with her father. Her flavors include saffron, rose and pink peppercorn, blue raspberry, fruit punch and apple.

I've also seen you've done things like ambrosia and rock candy. There's this deep sense of throwback and nostalgia in a lot of your stuff. Where does that come from?

Growing up, I remember walking through the Milwaukee Public Museum every single Saturday with my dad because he always had to work. He passed away during COVID. It's kind of an ode to him. I used to get so many different flavors of rock candy, and I loved that place. When I was at 3rd Street [Market Hall], I accidentally made rock candy. I was like, “What the hell am I doing? How did I do this?” So I just did it again. But I did it on purpose.

The ambrosia is inspired by my old business partner who was obsessed with it. She made these licorice marshmallows, and I was like wait a second, they have like these tooty fruity marshmallows that I grew up with. So [I’m] just kind of bringing all these little memories and people that were important in my life into the menu.

That is really sweet. Thank you for sharing. It's a beautiful way to remember your dad. Tell me about a recipe that you figured out or you know, something that you're really proud of?

a cross-section of monkeybread shows it's filled with green herby filling
Courtesy of Sam Sandrin
Midwest Sad's savory monkey bread is filled with pesto, roasted garlic and chive butter.

Um, what am I excited about…

Monkey bread! 

I was gonna say monkey bread. I'm actually really excited about it, and not just because you just mentioned it. It's essentially a white sandwich bread. But I proofed it for double the amount of time and added potato starch to make a very light bite that essentially tastes like white sandwich bread but way more buttery. Way more light, a little more salty than your average one and not sweet. It’s savory instead. I make pesto, roasted garlic and chive butter. I put that in the layers — how you would with cinnamon sugar. It turns into this toasted, gooey deliciousness.

My mom used to make monkey bread as a Christmas morning thing. That's what it makes me think of. It’s such a special thing — you talked about how memories from your childhood of certain things are infused in here. It's nice because I feel like people also have echoes of that when they're having these treats. It means a lot. 

Yeah. As millennials, we saw the whole entire world change. Things are very different from when I remember being a very young child and [thinking] like, “sky's the limit.” As a millennial now, it's just very different to see the horrors of everyday life. So I think it's really important to focus on the good things. That's why I love baking and creating food so much. You don't need to know the language, you don't need to know the culture. But you need to know why the food is special and why sharing it is special and the community that goes with it. Now looking back and seeing I'm recreating things that were really centric to my childhood, I want to share that with everybody. So they also remember it in their way.

Midwest Sad is located on the lower level of 770 N. Jefferson St. You can place orders and find updated hours on their Instagram page. 

Lina is a WUWM news reporter.
Related Content