How Chicago’s Farmers Markets Survive the Winter

How Chicago’s Farmers Markets Survive the Winter

About three years ago, Matt Tortora, co-founder and CEO of WhatsGood, a Rhode Island-based online marketplace for farmers and small vendors, met with Green City Markets then-CEO Melissa Flynn. Flynn believed that e-commerce could be important for the future of the market and wanted to work with WhatsGood to enable her suppliers to deliver products throughout Chicago.

This partnership proved valuable when the COVID-19 pandemic began: WhatsGood allowed Green City Market farmers to compensate for their lost sales from closed restaurants and delayed markets by delivering their products directly to shoppers.

“We grew 40 times in three months from the beginning of March to the end of May,” says Tortora about 2020. “It was incredible. The farmers did much better than they had the previous year. It was not just that overcoming a lot of challenges, it became a huge opportunity. ”

Someone wearing a mask and an orange

There is a lot of branding in this image.
WhatsGood / Barry koben

Tortora had previously worked as a chef and got the idea from his own struggles to get in touch with local farmers and vendors to find seasonal ingredients. The company started in 2014 as a platform only for chefs, but gained momentum quickly, enabling hundreds of thousands of shoppers to place pickup and delivery orders in 21 states. With the opening in December of their Farm Shop in Lincoln Park, WhatsGood is looking to further leverage this growth.

“The details side of what we do is a highly curated set of products that also enables us to offer faster delivery and pickup and have a presence in the community,” says Tortora.

The 2,000-square-foot space at 1712 N. Halsted fills the void left when Green City Market closed for the winter. It also serves as a fulfillment center and storage space for WhatsGood orders, offering a rotating range of 450 to 500 products from local farms and small vendors. Shoppers will find lentils and peas from West Humboldt Park’s Chicago Indoor Garden, pasta from Bucktown noodle shop Tortello and muffins from Green City Market vendor Verzênay Pâtisserie made with blueberries from Mick Klug Farm in Michigan. There may not be tomatoes in the winter, but the store has freshly grown collard greens, lettuce, spinach, bok choy, root vegetables, squash, grass-fed meats and mushrooms.

“We think when [farmers] markets are closing down, farmers are closing down, but that is no longer true, ”says Tortora. “The majority of our farmers use some form of controlled environmental growth like a greenhouse or hangar to extend the seasonality of what they do.”

Shoppers looking for fresh farm produce year-round can also turn to the Village Farmstand in Evanston, which opened in August 2020. The 810 Dempster Street location features ingredients and meat from farmers in central Illinois, as well as frozen foods made by chefs from these products and meats, including soups from chef Brian Enyart of Dos Urban Cantina in Humboldt Park and empanadas from Edgewater’s Luciana’s Kitchen.

Owner Matt Wechsler is the author and director of Sustainable, a 2016 documentary on America’s food and farming system, and Village Farmstand is a collaboration between him and farmer Marty Travis, who runs a farmer-to-farmer delivery service for 60 farms in central Illinois. Village Farmstand thrived for the first six months of business, but Wechsler said that when pandemic restrictions began to be lifted and farmers’ markets reopened in 2021, his sales fell by 25 percent. The losses have since leveled off, but Wechsler said he still faces competition from winter agricultural markets and that his customers are tired of cooking and looking for more cooked food.

“We started to see consumers’ buying habits change back to where they were, where consumers spent more of their food dollars on restaurants and less on groceries,” Wechsler said. “We started fighting a bit at that point. We have reached a point where we are able to survive, but we have nowhere near the business we had at the peak of the pandemic.”

Since then, Wechsler has had to rethink its business. Instead of relying almost exclusively on in-store pick-up orders, Village Farmstand will begin to function more like a traditional grocery store. At the end of January, there will be a freezer department so customers can go in and see products for sale, a way to reduce waste by having fewer items out. Wechsler is also focused on expanding beyond its partnerships with local farmers to have a selection of preservative-free pantry items from across the country.

A potential lasting blessing for both companies is the supply chain problems and inflation that occur at major grocery retailers. Tortora and Wechsler say their prices have not risen, although the price of conventional products, eggs and meat has risen.

“Kroger and Walmart are dependent on massive global markets that are changing rapidly because of these real macro factors over which we have little or no control,” says Tortora. “If people want to live sustainably during the pandemic, the local food system is here to serve them. If there are economic problems or supply chain problems, the local food system will still be there. Our cost of milk has not increased a penny since I started do this.”

Tortora still sees great opportunities to expand its business. He chose to open the first WhatsGood Farm Shop in Lincoln Park to accommodate his 6,000 existing customers in the neighborhood, and because the centralized location can help his delivery business. But eventually he will open 20 more locations, stretching from the South Loop to Evanston.

“I always have an open mind as to where we can best serve the customer and how we can best serve the community,” says Tortora. “We’re just started.”

Are you looking for other places to get locally grown produce this winter? Here are a few more options.

6100 S. Blackstone Avenue, (773) 241-6044

Located on the border between Hyde Park and Woodlawn, the indoor-outdoor market runs from 6 p.m. 9am to 8th January, 12th February, 12th March and 9th April. Buy produce, meat, eggs, cheese and prepared foods from local and regional farms, including Mint Creek Farm and Ellis Family Farms.

2537 N. Pulaski Road, (773) 489-3222

Sunday’s indoor market offers fresh meat, cheese and ingredients, plus a rotating selection of vendors offering jerky, pizza, frozen yogurt and more.

4459 S. Marshfield Avenue, (773) 847-5523

The two-week indoor market Back of the Yards offers products from local farmers and small businesses, including honey, candles and soap.

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