Paul McAleer

How to Fix the Chicago French Market

Paul McAleer

Just last year, Chicago got its own permanent market. Located in the Ogilvie Transportation Center, the Chicago French Market opened to much fanfare. Fast forward to today, and it seems that the market is languishing. What’s the deal?

I’m a big fan of these types of markets. I admit that I’ve only been to two, in Toronto and Milwaukee, but both of them are fabulous. Toronto’s St. Lawrence market is a big, old warehouse-y space with myriad vendors, wonderful smells and sights, and lots of unique items. Milwaukee’s is smaller and newer than TO’s but feels very comfortable and integrated with its surrounding neighborhood.

In contrast, the Chicago French Market is small and soulless. But it can be fixed.

Let’s talk about location first. The CFM is located in something called MetraMarket, a number of retail spaces built in the main station concourse one level below the trains themselves. MetraMarket, named for Metra commuter rail, has three tenants: CFM, CVS, and Lavazza. The remaining storefronts are empty. The CFM, then, gets equal billing and visibility as any other store there.

Worse, the CFM is not truly integrated into the train station. One must enter the market between two tracks like any other store. This doesn’t work with the traffic flow. The trains are indeed one level above MetraMarket, and the vast majority of commuters in this concourse are simply passing through to get to buses and their offices. In addition, many more commuters exit from the train level of the station which empties directly into CitiCorp Center… and there’s more, separate retail there.

Parking is available in the same building as CFM, but one must exit the parking area and walk a block south on Clinton or Canal to get to an entrance. The CFM is also not handicap accessible from inside Ogilvie, as there are no elevators between the train and concourse levels. Again, handicapped folks have to leave the building in order to access it. Totally unacceptable.

Once in the market though, one finds a standard supermarket aisle flow. There’s also a large dining area at the eastern end of the space. The floors are white and squeaky clean. Large artwork of the Eiffel Tower and other French landmarks line the dining area walls. Lighting is bright and glaring. Vendor booths are predominantly similar; cold display cases and low-quality signage rule the day with just a couple of exceptions.

I mentioned the French-themed art and that’s something else which hasn’t been properly addressed: the name. Anytime I’ve mentioned the CFM to people who haven’t been there, they automatically think all of the food is French-only. It’s understandable as the name is meant to evoke not the cuisine but the style of market.

Finally, there’s the issue of audience. Ogilvie sits below a major office tower in CitiCorp Center so a lot of its customers are likely to be professionals looking for lunch. There are a couple of vendors who sell fruits, veggies, fish, and meat. These vendors seem much better suited to the bustling community of the Near West Side than people who need to make their next train.

It’d be easy to say that I’m down on the CFM, but I also see a lot of opportunity here.

Let’s start with the location problem. There’s no quick fix for this, sadly, but I think that some improvements can be made. Having temporary spaces for some vendors in the concourse, as the CFM has started to do, is good. Go further and make those spaces permanent. Bring more of the market out onto the concourse, where there are thousands of people every day.

And don’t discount bringing more of the market up to the train level of Ogilvie, either. Just one or two vendors would be a start.

It’s just plain hard to get to the market. At least one elevator shaft needs to be built, for the current accessibility is laughably poor. The current signage, imploring people leaving into CitiCorp to, “Turn around and go downstairs!” is also a miss. These signs are in locations where people are leaving, not lingering. So change the wording and placement. Maybe buy ads on Metra?

I also heartily endorse changing the name. How about The Chicago Market at Ogilvie? Drop the “French” term; it’s too easily misunderstood by the audience. Speaking of which, the customer base needs to be really clearly defined. This market doesn’t serve the community, as it’s closed on Sundays and has poor Saturday hours; it doesn’t serve commuters by having fresh fruits and veggies in bulk. Figure out what you want to go after and do it, folks.

Finally, there’s the issue of character. You may not know this, but Chicago? Used to be a major train center and is still pretty important. I know! There’s such an incredibly rich visual history to draw on here that it’s nearly criminal to skip it when designing a space within a freaking train station. So leverage that, okay? Allow me to indulge here: make the market feel timeless and classic. Tin ceilings. Rich wooden floors. Lower, incandescent lighting and more natural lighting. Big, comfortable chairs and booths for seating. Consistent signage amongst vendors. The current aesthetic is absolutely not working and not inviting. Brand the hell out of the thing, okay?

The Chicago French Market is located in one of the city’s major commuter rail stations, so it has an enormous opportunity to be a community hub, a purveyor of exotic foods as well as the basics, and a showcase of all of the great locally -made and -sourced foods we have in this city. Instead, it’s a mall food court with a couple of fresh food stalls. If that isn’t sad, I don’t know what is. Chicago deserves better.