New fix for French food fans

By HermineBloom

The Chicago French Market, which boasts close to 30 European-style food vendors, is inviting commuters, local residents and everyone in between to ditch the fast food lunch for a hearty Parisian sandwich with a side of fresh, organic vegetables before or after they catch the Metra train in Ogilvie Station, 131 N. Clinton St.

After five years of rigorous planning, the first indoor year-round marketplace in the city opened on Dec. 3. Modeled after Sebastien Bensidoun’s European ventures, the 15,000-square-foot market will stay open six days a week and will offer both seasonal and local certified organic produce, meats, fish and seafood, breads, pastries, cheese and wine, chocolates, artisan-made goods, flowers and handmade prepared meals and snacks for commuters.

“Chicago doesn’t have a year-round indoor market. It was something we were really looking forward to,” said Bensidoun, market operator and co-developer of the project. “We have no options during the winter because we don’t have any choice besides going to the supermarket.”

The marketplace, where independent vendors sell produce and handmade goods, is culturally significant in Europe and has been for centuries. Buying fresh products from an individual is something that Bensidoun’s family values, which is why several generations before Sebastien, notably his father and grandfather, managed open-air markets in and around Paris.

Thousands of vendors sell goods at more than 80 markets throughout the Paris metropolitan area, including Marche Raspail, one of the largest certified organic markets in Europe.

In 1997, Bensidoun first expanded to the U.S. when he brought year-round markets to the Chicago suburb of Wheaton after visiting at a young age and deciding he loved Chicago, he said. Now, the Bensidouns operate 16 seasonal markets in the United States, 13 of which are located in Chicago and surrounding suburbs.

The Chicago French Market in the Ogilvie Transportation Center was the brainchild of commercial real estate company U.S. Equities Realty and the Bensidoun family.

Metra issued a request for proposal to the community to see what developers would be interested in trying to build as a ground lease on the property, said Bob Wislow, the CEO of U.S. Equities Realty. The company’s proposal for the market and surrounding retail was selected, he said.

“Every trip I make to a foreign country—and even some cities in the U.S.—one of the first things I do early in the morning to get to know the city is see the market,” Wislow said. “I just love markets. [There’s] flowers, fish, whatever it is.  I’ve been doing it for 20 years.”

This market in particular is unique in that it exists within a large transportation hub, which was intentional.

“I’m a big believer in transit-oriented development,” Wislow said. “People going in and out of the city have the retail right here.

People heading back home in the evening can pick up food, take it up on the train with them and don’t have to drive anywhere, or those in the neighborhood can pick up the food and go nearby. It eliminates car trips.”

Greg O’Neill, co-proprietor and co-founder of Pastoral Artisan Cheese, Bread & Wine, said he and Bensidoun had first started discussing the project four years ago.

Pastoral Artisan Cheese, Bread & Wine, a small batch, high-quality restaurant, has locations in both the Lakeview neighborhood and the Loop. A full-service shop is featured at the Chicago French Market selling everything from wine, cheese, fresh bread, sandwiches and salads to party trays and gift boxes.

“We like people to have a taste of something and learn something about it,” O’Neill said.

Not only is it nice to have fresh food choices amidst the food deserts in the city, he explained,

but it’s also a way for his businesses to reach a whole new suburban clientele that they would have never reached otherwise, due to the large number of commuters.

Ultimately, Bensidoun said he hopes to attract students as well.

“It’s a shopping experience and I hope it becomes a destination,” Bensidoun said. “There is public space everywhere, a beautiful mural. They can sit, have a coffee and Wi-Fi will be available for free in the next week or two.”

Though other cities on the West Coast have been asking to house his markets, he said he’s currently looking to focus on the Midwest and the Northeast.

“I was supposed to fly back to Paris, but I pushed my ticket back again to three weeks [from now] to make sure the market is [running] well,” Bensidoun said.  Visit for additional information.