Students find comfort at Wheaton’s local open-air market.
Every Saturday in the summer and fall months, Wheaton students, faculty and area families follow the scent of fresh baguettes and sunflowers through downtown Wheaton to the south side of the train tracks, near Courthouse Square. Ripe fruit, Polish sausages and bright begonias are for sale. Mystery novels line a vendor’s bookshelves. Colorful French dresses billow on their racks, dancing as chatter fills the air.
The Wheaton French Market began its run this year on April 9 and will continue until Nov. 26, drawing in crowds from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. The space is a blend of a farmers’ market, which vends farm products, and a traders’ market, where purveyors sell arts and crafts or imported goods like clothes and accessories. This is typical of open-air markets in France, which sell a range of goods from raw dairy and produce to soap and shoes.
After managing a handful of markets in Europe, French native and open-air market manager Rolland Bensidoun brought his family business to the U.S. in 1996 with the goal of expanding the public market tradition to American cities. The Wheaton French Market was born a year later, in 1997, along with similar markets throughout Chicagoland, including in Glen Ellyn and Geneva.
Junior applied health sciences major Sydney Vandenheuvel began working at the market this year, selling fruits, vegetables, bread and pastries at the Geneva-based Windy Acres Farm booth. For Vandenheuvel, the market is a place to gather, connect with others and learn more about her fellow vendors.
“It’s a cool way to see people outside of school and interact with them, and make their day,” said Vandenheuvel. “I love working here. I love seeing a lot of stands that have different stories behind them, and getting to ask why they do what they do.”
Anna Franz runs Le Parisian Apt, a small Wheaton-based business known for their old-style authentic French prints and European fashions. Franz travels to Paris each year to source her products and bring them back to Wheaton. When she is gone, her husband, Peter Franz, runs the stand. They have been doing this for fifteen years. However, commerce is not what makes the market special to them, it’s the people.
“There’s a certain air about this place,” said Franz, “ that the people are happy here. It’s genuine. It’s unlike any other market. People enjoy being here, and it’s just a great experience.”
For freshman philosophy major Josh Kannard, the Wheaton French market is a taste of home. After moving to Italy as a missionary’s son at the age of 10, he has a strong connection to market culture, a major aspect of Italian society.
Kannard lived in various parts of Italy, including Ostia, a port neighborhood not far from Rome. When living in Ostia, he and his family visited a mass outdoor market every Sunday morning to shop for clothes, food and produce. Although he is used to the bigger European markets, he tries to visit the Wheaton French market every Saturday.
“The market is not relaxed — that’s what I like about it,” said Kannard. “Market life is chaos and people and noise. I thrive in chaos, and markets are an extreme embodiment of that chaos. You don’t have the Italian butchers and food vendors yelling all over the place trying to get your attention — but there’s people from all generations from all places, all in this little space.”
Kannard’s family was given the option to return to the U.S. at the beginning of the pandemic, but they decided to stay in Italy. Amid some of the tightest restrictions in the world, Kannard did online school and stayed close to home as the pandemic raged. Because they weren’t able to leave their home to go to the bakers every day, his mom would make homemade bread.
“Something very homey to me is fresh baked bread,” Kannard said. “During the pandemic, our lives were pretty mixed up, but homemade bread was comforting.”
When stepping into the row of lined tents at the Wheaton market, the smell of fresh bread and pastries are already wafting. Stands on the north side of the market sell crepes and croissants. It’s an invitation to eat and shop. But most of all, the market brings people together.
“Having that here in Wheaton is a bit like a taste of home,” said Kannard. “It’s so far away, but it’s a little reminder.”