Paris visits Chicago with fresh food markets

Chicago French Market, 131 N. Clinton St., which is owned by Bensidoun USA Inc. and operates year-round, has 30 distinct vendors who sell of locally grown French foods.

By Assistant Arts & Culture Editor

As Chicago finally emerges from the antisocial horrors of Chiberia, perennial farmers markets are blooming throughout the city. Outdoor markets are a seasonal treat that highlight local vendors and community interactions while promoting healthy eating, but Chicago’s French markets are a breed of their own. 

Bensidoun USA Inc., a company that owns French markets across Europe and New York City, also has two Chicago locations, one in Lakeview and in the other in the downtown area. The latter, the indoor Chicago French Market, 131 N. Clinton St., opened in 2009 and  runs year-round. 

“We include, depending on the local health department rules, meat vendors, fish vendors [and] cheese vendors,” said Sebastien Bensidoun, executive vice president of Bensidoun USA, who was interviewed by telephone from Paris. “At the farmers market, it’s very rare to see those types of things. We want to give a shopping experience as we do the markets here in France.”

Bensidoun said the company expanded to include Chicago locations because of his fondness for the Windy City.

“I love your country,” Bensidoun said. “For me, it’s my favorite country—even better than France—and Chicago is definitely my favorite city in the U.S.”

The indoor Chicago French Market creates a sense of community, said Robb Wehrmbister, employee of Fumare Meats, one of the 

market’s vendors. 

“All the vendors are kind of like one big family down here,” Wehrmbister said. “We have repeat customers through here multiple times during the week.”

The Chicago French Market hosts more than 30 vendors, including Buen Apetito, which offers French dinner specialties, and FliP Crepes, a French breakfast station. The majority of the food is made using locally grown produce, but what sets this market apart from traditional markets is the prepared dishes it offers rather than raw products. They also aim to incorporate vendors who sell products other than food items.

Bensidoun USA’s second Chicago market, which opened in 2003, is The Nettelhorst French Market, is a seasonal, outdoor French market that sets up shop every Saturday from April 26 through late October at the East playground of Nettelhorst Elementary School, 3252 N. Broadway. The Nettelhorst French Market features vendors of fresh baked bread, sweets, produce and French foods like the Chicago French Market, in addition to craft vendors. The market’s managers only accept general vendors who are selling hand-crafted and non-resale merchandise, said Nettelhorst Elementary School Principal Cindy Wulbert.

The outdoor French market in Lakeview is also a social gathering place, Wulbert said. Established 11 years ago, the market was created to connect the school to the community, she said, adding that Nettelhorst Elementary became a school of young commuter students from other neighborhoods.

“There wasn’t a strong connection between the school and the community,” Wulbert said. “Most of the neighborhood children did not go to Nettelhorst school at the time [the market] was started, so it was the school’s way of reaching out to the community so the community could get to know the school.”

Wulbert said more people are relocating to the neighborhood and Nettelhorst students are becoming increasingly local residents. However, she said the market has maintained its power to bring the community together in a positive way.

Wulbert said the market is typically bustling with happy, chattering 

people enjoying strolling through inviting stands of food and crafts on summer Saturday mornings along with their neighbors.

“It really is not just a place to go buy fruits and vegetables,” Wulbert said. “It’s part of the fabric of the neighborhood.”