Every Sunday from May to October, a stretch of Logan Boulevard closes down to welcome the public to the annual Logan Square Outdoor Farmers Market, now in its 12th year of operation. This year, the opening day for the Zagat-approved outdoor market is May 14.
Visitors can stop by Stamper Cheese for some mouth-watering mozzarella, pick up freshly-picked apples from Piedt Farms, get an iced chai from Chiya Chai Café and enjoy live music.
The market started in 2005 when a student, Shani Gitter, née Brown, living in Logan Square called Alderman Colon’s office to ask if there was a farmers market in the neighborhood.
Paul Levin, currently the Executive Director for the Logan Square Chamber of Commerce, worked for the alderman at the time and was the one to answer her call. “I told her, ‘No, there isn’t a market,’” Levin said. “There had been one prior to that, though it didn’t do well. She said, ‘Well, I guess I have to start one.’ I said, ‘Whoa — maybe we could help with that.’”
Levin put Gitter in touch with the City of Chicago Cultural Affairs and Special Events Department. With help from the city and Alderman Colon, a market opened in Logan Square that summer.
Focusing on Community
The 2005 market had enough success that the city decided to continue for a second year. But before the market’s third season, the Chamber of Commerce had a few changes in mind.
Levin had started working at the Chamber with Josh Deth, then the Chamber’s executive director and now the founder/owner of Revolution Brewery.
“Josh and I thought that there would be ways to improve and build the farmers market into a bigger thing. Some of those things were not in keeping with policies that the city had,” Levin said.
The main changes Levin and Deth wanted to make: inclusion of prepared food vendors (as opposed to a strict farmers-only policy) and set up a system that accepted state-issued LINK cards for payment. With those goals in mind, the Chamber took over operations in 2007 and became the first farmers market in Illinois to accept LINK cards for payment.
The introduction of LINK payment processing meant the Chamber could also handle credit and debit card payments. Levin used this as an opportunity to cover the credit card processing fees for all market vendors, which is a much-appreciated incentive.
“Many farmers were stunned by that — we were essentially making it possible for them to make more money,” Levin said.
Growth and Loyalty
The Chamber had 14 vendors during their first year of operation.
In 2017, a decade later, their list has grown to 73 vendors from across the Midwest, including farmers, prepared-food vendors, and baked-goods producers. There is also the addition of the indoor market, which takes place from November to March at 2755 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Chiya Chai Café (2770 N. Milwaukee Ave.) became a vendor in 2016 and will be at the outdoor market this year as well.
“We think that Logan Square Farmers Market is the best in the city,” said Rajee Aryal, co-founder of Chiya Chai Café. “There is a good combination of vendors, it’s not too small, it has a great open location and most importantly the prices are more reasonable than some other farmers markets.”
Chiya Chai Café opened in June 2016, and Aryal attributes some of her business’s success so far to the market. “Many of our patrons know us from the Logan Square Farmers Market,” Aryal said. “A lot of them visited the cafe because they loved what we had to offer. So our participation has had a very positive impact on the business.”
Levin notes that the market’s loyal shoppers have saved them the effort of soliciting new vendors to join each year.
“Customers in Logan Square have always seemed to be really interested in the farmers, finding out about what they’re selling and how it’s produced,” Levin said. “Many vendors come back not just because they get a lot of customers, but because they enjoy the market. They contrast with other markets where customers treat them as pieces of furniture holding vegetables in their hands.”
Despite high vendor interest and growth over the years, there isn’t a plan for expansion in the near future. Levin states that the main focus for the market has always been to give Logan Square a good reputation and to make the community feel like the market belongs to them. The market is meeting those goals at its current size.
The Chamber has also historically preferred to work with smaller vendors that may not participate in larger, city-wide markets. They even occasionally travel to vendor farms to experience firsthand where some of the market food is grown, which is uncommon for many other markets.
Gretta’s Goats in Pecatonica, Ill., is one of the small vendors that the market has helped over the years.
“Our sales have increased every year since we started going there,” owner Gretta Winkelbauer said. “It has also brought awareness about our farm. We get folks who stay at our farm, and about 40% of people who stay are from Logan Square. We are really thankful that we are a part of the market.”
For Levin, this is music to his ears. “I’m happiest with being able to help farmers with their business.”
The Logan Square Outdoor Farmers Market opens Sunday, May 14 at 10:00 a.m. on Logan Boulevard between Milwaukee Avenue and Whipple Street. For more information, visit logansquarefarmersmarket.org.