Every year, the Streeterville Organization of Active Residents (SOAR) organizes the rain-or-shine neighborhood farmers' market on the MCA Plaza. The market runs every Tuesday from June through October, its bounty slowly transitioning from plump berries to vibrant gourds. While the location is just a few steps away for many who work and live in the neighborhood, the farmers and vendors travel from far and wide to sell their wares.
To investigate the unique origins and stories of the SOAR market sellers, former MCA marketing intern Caroline Chu created an interactive map of seven of the market's unique vendors. Click through the markers on the map below to explore her findings on each of the featured vendors—and stop by the market in the coming weeks, before the winter chill.
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Stamper Cheese Company
Phillip has been working for Stamper Cheese Company for about 5 or 6 years, but Stamper Cheese has been around for about 12 years, and Wisconsin cheese has been in farmers' markets for as long as farmers' markets have been around. The company both makes their own cheeses and curates cheeses from around Wisconsin. Phillip told us, “The most recent cheese we started making is a camembert, which we’re really excited about because it’s hard to get those French or European cheeses right, especially in Wisconsin. So we got a cave space to make it, because that’s one of the key features of camembert, that it’s cave aged. We just did a honey-truffle camembert and a bleu camembert . . . but we also do cheese curds, we do some flavored Jacks, flavored cheddars, a few other different spreadable types.” These are just a few of Stamper’s 30-40 different varieties of cheese offerings. Phillip’s favorite cheese to sell is from Cypress Grove—he describes it as “a sheep’s milk cheese called Donatello, which has actually, it’s like a different cheese every time we get it . . . it’s so delicious every time, every version of it. Today, I’ve been selling a lot of one that’s really fudgy . . . I have another batch that I brought, it’s more like a parmesan and it’s more dry.” Their most popular product is the pistachio log. “People love it. It’s like our take on the holiday cheese ball, but much better. My boss inherited the recipe when he bought the business.” What makes Stamper Cheese so unique is that they do extra affinage, “which is the ageing of the cheese. So most of the stuff that’s on the table, even if it’s something you could find at the grocery store, you’re not gonna find it tasting the same because we let it age. Even the things you might see that are familiar are a little bit different from us, so that makes us really cool.”
Maggie from Klehm Growers comes to the SOAR Farmers Market from Hampshire, IL. Klehm Growers produces orchids and houseplants primarily, and they grow 70 different varieties of peonies, all Klehm hybrids. Her husband Arnie’s family has been working in horticulture for four generations. “I enjoy coming to farmers' markets because I feel like we can guide people, on what will do well in their homes or offices, and they appreciate the customer service. It’s very tailored—people tell me what kind of light [they have] and their travel so we can find what’s going to work well for them. And I’ve established a strong foot in this community. People know they can depend on me.” Maggie told us she loves the peonies they grow in the spring, but her favorite are her orchids. “I love my orchids. My husband is a judge for the American Orchid Society, and he’s an awarded breeder. I like breeding quality.”
Karl's Craft Soup
Karl's Craft Soup is a nearby neighbor, housed in River Forest, IL. Camille explains the company's origin: "Okay, so Karl, who makes the soup, he cooks out of a commercial kitchen in River Forest. So there’s about maybe ten different food vendors that cook through there. There are cottage food laws in Illinois, so there are certain foods you can make at home and certain foods you cannot. So, like, baked goods, you can, but a soup, you’re gonna have to get your food handler’s license and work out of a commercial kitchen to be able to sell at farmers' markets. So that’s where we sell from. This is our third year selling." Her vending companion, Jen, explains that Karl has been slinging the soup for about 6 years. When asked about their favorite soup, both the vendors responded that they love the Tuscan White Bean, with Jen also noting the Chipotle Black Bean as a favorite. She went on to explain what makes Karl's products unique: "He makes really good vegan products–we have a lot of vegan customers–and he makes vegetarian. So we only do vegan and vegetarian. And then, he sources locally from the farmers’ market, so usually whatever you’re eating is usually in season, and we try to make our rounds with the farmers so that we can kind of be fair and try everybody’s, so it’s pretty community-oriented. That’s what we love about the farmers' market–we get to hang out with the farmers and learn and get educated about, you know, just the farm life. It’s pretty awesome." Camille had her opinions as to what makes the SOAR market unique, saying, "The SOAR people run a nice market, and it’s small enough where you can run around, and then you get to go in the museum! For free on Tuesdays! It’s lovely."
Breadman Baking Company
The Breadman and his partner decided to start their own breadmaking business after the owner of the bread company they both worked for passed away. “I was in sales and distribution and he was the head baker—and so we said, 'Hey, let’s do this together.' And we got together and started the business.” The Breadman drives in from Naperville each week, and he told us people should try Breadman bread because “it’s a quality product. Quality product, all-natural ingredients, and a healthier product than what’s in the store.” He has loyal customers, which he attributes to his practice of giving out samples. “Most people walk by and they say, 'Oh, well if that looks good, then I’ll get it.' Whereas people come to my table, and they get to taste what they see. Once they taste it—well, one lady said, ‘You sold me!’ I said, ‘Ma’am, I didn’t sell you a thing . . .I just gave you a sample. I gave you a sample and you decided to buy it.’” The bread sells itself.
This is Kaitlin’s 9th summer working for Smits Farms, located in Chicago Heights, IL. “Our boss and his wife have 6 kids . . . their oldest daughter is actually the market manager, so it’s a family business.” Over the course of those summers, Kaitlin has “definitely learned a lot about herbs. I didn’t know anything about herbs before I started working here. I’d say that’s kind of one of our specialties.” Smits Farms also grows some pretty colorful produce: “We actually get different colors of cauliflower–purple, orange, and green cauliflower. I especially like the purple. It’s my favorite color, so that’s pretty cool. And it pretty much keeps the color when you cook it; it just gets a little lighter. And it tastes the same as regular white cauliflower, so it’s just a different fun color.” Kaitlin offered a tip for selecting your fresh farmers market produce, too. “Pretty much any produce, you want it to be firm, not soft. I wouldn’t want to pick anything that had spots of bruises, but I’d say the biggest thing is that you’d want it to be firm. You want it to look good and feel good.”
Ellis Family Farms
René represents Ellis Family Farms, located in Benton Harbor, MI. “My name is René, and I am the owner of Ellis Family Farms. With my grandson, we are now six generations of farmers. We started [in Michigan] way in the 1930s, but it didn’t mean that my grandparents weren’t farmers over in Europe. And I don’t count that over here! We’ve always been in the same region of southwest Michigan, including my great-grandparents, who were only like a mile away from the farm, so it’s sort of neat that my dad’s side and my mom’s side sort of merged together somehow.” To get to the SOAR Farmers Market, René and her team drive 135 miles each week from Benton Harbor. When it comes to using her own produce, René told us that when rhubarb comes in season, she makes a rhubarb torte that her whole family loves. Right now, it’s peach season, and “I’ll do anything with ‘em, from canning them, to making jam, grilling them, and I actually do some margaritas with them. Oh! And there’s a peach salsa I make–a little on the hot side, but that’s okay. It has no tomatoes in it, it’s just peaches, so it’s sweet, which is really neat, and then it’s spicy.” Why should people shop at farmers' markets? According to René, “a farmer is going to be very upfront and honest with you, whereas in grocery store, an employee doesn’t really know everything. It might be organic, but it might be from Mexico, and when you’re talking about organic, in Mexico there are chemicals you can use that in America, you can’t. Organic around the world has a whole different meaning. And then even organics in America are different! Like the stall next door is no-spray organic, but organics do have some chemicals that they can use to spray. So ‘organic’ doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t spray. You need to know your farmer.”
Finn's Steak and Eggs Ranch
Will from Finn’s Steak & Eggs Ranch in Buchanan, Michigan, told us what makes Finn’s so special. “We birth and raise [the animals] right there at the farm, and they’re all pasture-raised, so we don’t have any cages whatsoever—just open-air shelters. The animals can come and go as they please . . . all of our pasture is certified organic. The ranch itself, everything the animals live on and consume, is all certified organic.” When asked why people should shop at farmers' markets, Will replied that it’s important to know where you’re getting your food. Certain health-food stores, he says, “sell grass-fed comparable to ours, but all of that is shipped in from New Zealand. It’s not that that’s bad, but . . .that stuff’s been frozen, you know, on a container ship for months to get here. With ours, you can come to the farm and see the whole process from beginning to end. All of our meat, within a week of a cow being butchered, it’s here being sold.” Will’s favorite product from Finn’s is the bacon burgers, which have chunks of bacon mixed in with the hamburger patties. What does he recommend for preparation? “On the grill. Anything on the grill. Charcoal grill over gas grill—that’s definitely the way to go!”