As the orange leaves lead us into autumn, it is our last opportunity to enjoy summer activities. With three Saturdays left to go this year, the Peoria Riverfront Market is a must.
Crisp red apples tumble out of overflowing baskets and bump into the enormous zucchinis with bright yellow spaghetti squash stacked beside it. Vibrant flowers burst out of water buckets. Carefully crafted earrings dangle in rows that are set straight like the corn on the cob the next booth over. I tossed my change into a guitar case for the couple singers who crooned and strummed for passersby.
An outstretched hand offers me samples of locally produced cheese and sausages. Doughy pretzels fill paper plates in the hands of people all around me as they peruse hand-crafted rugs and fresh bread.
Swanee’s Soft Pretzels is the source of the paper-plated soft pretzels. A family business grown out of Mark Swanson’s post-retirement boredom, Swanee’s has been proudly serving pretzels at the Riverfront Market for the last three years.
“The market has grown so much since our first year,” said Jaclyn Koll, Swanson’s daughter.
Sharon Gramm, Riverfront Market manager since 2006, reiterated this thought. The Peoria Riverfront Market has seen enormous growth since it was founded by a group of passionate locals and a graduate student in 2004. In the most popular mid-July and August dates of the farmers market season, around 90 vendors and 5,000 visitors can be found bustling along the RiverFront on a Saturday morning. Previously hosted at a smaller venue, the market has moved to the 200 block of Water Street. Gramm says they are always adding new activities, vendors and musicians to the lineup.
This year, the Heart of Illinois (HOI) Professional Chefs Association has been operating a “‘Chopped’- style” cooking competition. A “mystery” ingredient is announced on-site, and the chefs are then given a budget and time limit to gather ingredients exclusively from the market to concoct a delicious creation for spectators and judges. Sept. 15 will be the “finale” of this competition. The HOI chefs serve freshly made, personalized omelets for only $5.
Another unique Riverfront Market staple, Ann Schreifels owns and operates Jar d’Ann, a business that sells dry mixes in jars. These jar meals include vegan chili, soups, pancakes, brownies and more. The mixes are intended to be healthy, easy meal options made with mostly organic ingredients and free from added chemicals and preservatives.
“Everything at the market is fresh, local and unique,” Schreifels said. “There are many bargains to be had too. For example, the chili from Jar d’Ann requires just adding water and makes a huge pot – 12 servings – but costs less than one dollar per serving. For students on a limited budget, that’s a week’s worth of dinner for $10.”
Peoria Riverfront Market also offers more than just food. Jessica McGhee is an active member of Peoria’s art community with her jewelry and mural business, Hey Lola. She has been selling jewelry at the market since it first opened and has witnessed the transformation.
“Come more than once,” McGhee said. “It’s a big market, so it’s easy to miss things the first time around.”
In the sunniest of days and in the pouring rain, vendors stand under their tents, proudly displaying their wares. Gramm said the Riverfront Market is unique in that it is a producers-only and state-exclusive market, something that resonates with both vendors and customers.
“You are talking to the farmers and artisans directly,” Schreifels said.
“Everything being sold is made, grown and baked right here in central Illinois,” McGhee added.
No matter the severity of your Saturday hangover, Peoria Riverfront Market is the place to go anytime from 8 a.m. until 12 p.m. for free entertainment, yoga, fresh and healthy yet inexpensive food, art, unique gifts and wares, general support for your community… need I go on?
“[The market] really highlights what Peoria has to offer,” Gramm said. “Bradley students don’t venture down here as often as they could.”