Dave Kahns was up early on Saturday morning getting ready for the start of Forest Park’s French Market. Really early.
Kahns, a resident of central Illinois’ Amish community in Arthur, drove three hours before setting up his display of pies, pastries and other baked goods in time for the 9 a.m. start. This is the first year that Kahns’ business, the Amish Country Bakery, has participated in the village’s market, but based on Saturday’s turnout he has plenty to look forward to.
“I’m very pleased,” Kahns said. “I’m very excited. It’s going to be a good market for us.”
May 5 marked the start of the 2007 French Market in Forest Park and by all accounts, the opener was a success. Every Saturday through Oct. 27 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., vendors from across the state and beyond will gather at the northwest corner of Madison and Circle streets to sell their homemade pies, fresh vegetables, handmade jewelry and other wares. The focus of this open air market is to provide a venue where small businesses can reach a customer base that otherwise might not be accessible.
Pam Millett, a Westchester resident, is one such customer. Millett was shopping in the area when she spotted the Amish Country Bakery stand from across the street. The product, she said, is a hard to find niche and she was more than willing to give it a try.
“I was going to the bakery across the street for some bread and thought I should check it out,” Millett said.
With roughly a dozen vendors at Saturday’s market, Leslie Cahill said the Forest Park venue is off to a strong start and appears to have the local support it needs to thrive. Cahill works for Bensidoun USA, which is the management company responsible for French Markets in the Midwest since 1997. Bensidoun’s largest and oldest market is in Wheaton where some 90 vendors gather every weekend. In Forest Park, the maximum capacity is 20 vendors.
But the size of any given market isn’t the most important thing, Cahill said. Quality products and a solid foundation of local merchants will determine the level of success.
“For the market to gel it has to feel like a community event and not some event run by some offsite group called Bensidoun,” Cahill said.
The market in Forest Park is supported by the Chamber of Commerce, Main Street Redevelopment Association and various independent businesses.
Since it started in 2003, the market in Forest Park has had some trouble gelling, due in part to its lack of a permanent address. Four years ago the market debuted at the corner of Elgin and Madison streets, but was pushed out by development. The following year vendors were forced to set up in the parking lot behind the Forest Park National Bank, making it tough for customers to find it. In 2005 there was no French Market in Forest Park. After being reborn in 2006 at its present location, organizers are hopeful the market has found a stable home.
“It really languished,” Cahill said of moving the event off Madison Street in 2004. “It left a bad taste in the mouths of the vendors. We’ve had to restart that market three times.”
Compared to last year, Cahill has a slightly greater number of full-time commitments from vendors who will be setting up each weekend this summer. Part-time vendors, those committed to only certain dates, are lagging a little, she said, but that seems to be the trend in all of the markets she runs. The outlook for 2007 is positive though, and Cahill guaranteed that additional vendors will be appearing at the Forest Park market.
For Jim Hardin, owner of Hardin Farms in Eau Claire, Mich., this is his second season with the Forest Park market. Like other vendors, Hardin trucks his fruits and vegetables to French Markets throughout the Midwest, hoping to sell people on his produce and his company. Part of the attraction of an open air market, Hardin said, is customers can look their farmer in the eye.
“When you’re buying from the grocery store you don’t know where it came from,” Hardin said