Grant Park farmers market details emerge
Too late in season to start a Saturday market, organizer says
05/11/2011 10:00 PM
The Chicago Park District unveiled its plans Tuesday for a farmers market on the south end of Grant Park, slated to start this June.
The park district’s concessions team is close to finalizing a contract that would bring a mix of meats, cheeses, breads and produce, as well as handmade artisan goods to the park on Fridays this summer.
It’s slated to be run by Bensidoun USA, the same company that runs the French Market in the West Loop’s Ogilvie station.
At a meeting Tuesday evening held in Grant Park’s Daley Bicentennial Plaza, Bensidoun’s Midwest Manager Leslie Cahill laid out her company’s plans for the market.
“We’ve been in Illinois since 1997 in the suburbs, but the goal has always been to be in Chicago,” Cahill said. “The best location I saw — and I drove all over the city — was in south Grant Park.”
The proposal, which is all but locked up at this point, is to set up a market between Balbo Drive and 11th Street, just off of Michigan Avenue. The market would run from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., in an attempt to lure those who work on the south end of the Loop to the market.
Several residents at the meeting asked why the market couldn’t be held on a Saturday, so that more South Loop residents who don’t work nearby could take advantage of the market.
But Cahill said that the process for this market simply got rolling too late in the year for a Saturday market to be feasible.
“A lot of vendors start making their market decisions in late December or early January,” Cahill said. “This wonderful opportunity came up a little bit later than that. … Saturday markets are the prime markets for these vendors, especially out in the suburbs. So I was confident that I would be able to get a very strong pool of vendors on Friday, but it was hard for me to know that with certainty on Saturday.”
Cahill said she has a pool of 500 vendors she taps to supply her markets, and the first market will have about 20 to 25 tents — though the plan would allow for as many as 40 if the market really takes off, she said.
The vendors will provide an even mix of foods, with little overlap between vendors. With too much competition, it makes it difficult for vendors to make a profit, she said.
“Healthy markets tend to be very well diversified — a lot of time you’ll go to a farmers market, and you’ll have 15 farmers, and it’s good because there’s a lot of options,” Cahill said. “But it is a hardship on the farmers to have that much competition.”
Tracy McKenzie, the general manager of the company that runs the park district’s concessions, said Bensidoun will pay the park district a flat fee for the first year for the privilege of setting up in Grant Park, rather than the typical percentage. The contract with Bensidoun for the Grant Park market is still pending.
“Some of the things we try to do, we try to create revenue for the park district, but that’s not always the main concern. We also try to do things that people will enjoy,” McKenzie said. “Then, there’s the aesthetic of bringing a beautiful market to a beautiful park. So we try to consider the park district’s mission as we look for concessions.”
In that vein, visual standards will be a factor, too. Vendors will be required to have 10-by-10-foot tents of white canvas.
Bob O’Neill, head of the Grant Park Conservancy, said it’ll be nice to see the south end of Grant Park getting some consistent use.
“That area, in particular, I think is one of the most beautiful areas of Grant Park,” he said. “It definitely has that French Neoclassical design, but it doesn’t get used. People don’t go into it.”
Cahill said she’s hearing good things from the farmers and providers she works with.
“Just from the buzz of it, I’m getting very strong feedback from vendors that they’d like to be a part of it,” Cahill said. “People are very excited about it.”