NewsEater: How Chicago’s Farmers Markets Survive During Winter

Posted Jan 04, 2022

By Samantha Nelson, Eater

About three years ago, Matt Tortora, the co-founder and chief executive officer of WhatsGood, a Rhode Island-based online marketplace for farmers and small vendors, met with Green City Market’s then-executive director Melissa Flynn. Flynn believed that e-commerce might be important to the market’s future and wanted to work with WhatsGood to allow her vendors to deliver products throughout Chicago.

That partnership proved valuable when the COVID-19 pandemic began: WhatsGood allowed Green City Market farmers to make up for their lost sales from shuttered 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,” Tortora says of 2020. “It was incredible. Farmers did much better than they had in the previous year. It was not only overcoming a lot of challenges, it became a huge opportunity.”

Tortora had previously worked as a chef and got the idea from his own struggles to connect with local farmers and vendors to find seasonal ingredients. The company started in 2014 as a platform just for chefs but quickly took off, allowing hundreds of thousands of shoppers to place pickup and delivery orders in 21 states. With the December opening of their Farm Shop in Lincoln Park, WhatsGood is looking to further capitalize on that growth.

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

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 and offers a rotating selection 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 does stock freshly grown collard greens, lettuce, spinach, bok choy, root vegetables, squash, grass-fed meat, and mushrooms.

“We think when the [farmers] markets shut down, farmers shut down, but that’s not true anymore,” Tortora says. “A majority of our farmers are using some type of controlled environment growth like a greenhouse or hoop house to extend the seasonality of what they do.”

Shoppers looking for farm-fresh produce year round can also turn to Village Farmstand in Evanston, which opened in August 2020. The spot at 810 Dempster Street stocks produce and meat from Central Illinois farmers as well as frozen prepared foods made by chefs from that produce and meat, 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 writer and director of Sustainable, a 2016 documentary about America’s food and farming system, and Village Farmstand is a collaboration between him and farmer Marty Travis, who operates a farmer-to-farmer delivery service for 60 Central Illinois farms. Village Farmstand thrived for its first six months in business, but Wechsler said that when pandemic restrictions began lifting and farmers markets reopened in 2021, his sales declined by 25 percent. The losses have since leveled off, but Wechsler said he’s still facing competition from winter farmers markets and that his customers are tired of cooking and looking for more prepared foods.

“We started to see consumer buying habits changing back to where they were, with consumers spending more of their food dollars at restaurants and less at grocery,” Wechsler said. “We started struggling a little bit at that point. We’ve gotten to a point where we’re able to survive, but we don’t have nearly the business that we had at the height of the pandemic.”

Since then, Wechsler has had to rethink his business. Instead of relying almost entirely on only orders for in-store pickup, Village Farmstand will begin functioning more like a traditional grocery. By the end of January, there will be a freezer section display so shoppers can walk in and see products for sale, a way to reduce waste by having fewer items out. Wechsler is also focused on expanding beyond his partnerships with local farmers to stock a selection of preservative-free pantry items from around the country.

One potential lasting boon to both businesses is the supply chain issues and inflation happening at major grocery retailers. Tortora and Wechsler say their prices haven’t gone up, even as the cost of conventional produce, eggs, and meat has increased.

“Kroger and Walmart rely on massive global markets that are rapidly changing due to these really macro factors that we have little to no control over,” Tortora says. “If people want to live sustainably during the pandemic, the local food system is here to serve them. If there’s economic or supply chain issues, the local food system will still be there. Our cost of milk hasn’t gone up a penny since I started doing this.”

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

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