Dawn Gerth, owner of Le Petit Marche, in Crystal Lake, got her start by selling homemade breads at farmers’ markets.

Le Petit Marche: Bakery-Cafe Fills a Niche

This Crystal Lake bakery-cafe is known for delicious treats as well as artisanal wines and cheeses, all served in a European-style setting.

Dawn Gerth, owner of Le Petit Marche, in Crystal Lake, got her start by selling homemade breads at farmers’ markets.
Dawn Gerth, owner of Le Petit Marche, in Crystal Lake, got her start by selling homemade breads at farmers’ markets.

Years of selling her homemade breads and pastries at farmers’ markets and fairs in McHenry County earned Dawn Gerth a reputation as a baker par excellence.

In 2004, the self-taught Gerth reached a watershed moment in her blossoming culinary career.

“I was looking to expand, and when property purpose-built in 1952 as a bakery came on the market at 19 N. Williams St., in Crystal Lake, I jumped at the opportunity,” says Gerth, who saw the potential to create a combination bakery and restaurant.

After extensive remodeling, the 25-seat Le Petit Marche opened for business in 2005.

Initially, Le Petit Marche served lunch only, but the schedule has broadened considerably. Breakfast sandwiches are served daily, with formal breakfasts held on Saturdays and Sundays.

Dinner is served three nights a week, with pasta offered on Thursdays, cod fish fry on Fridays and flatbreads on Saturdays. A number of small-plate dishes are available each night.

What distinguishes the bakery-cafe is its ever-changing inventory of mostly artisanal wines and cheeses.

The wines, affordably priced between $15 and $30, hail from small-production, family-owned vineyards and production facilities, both domestic and abroad. Gerth says customers are unlikely to recognize the producers.

“I taste everything that comes through our door, so I know its quality,” she says. “By getting familiar with customers’ preferences, a relationship is established and they come to trust my judgment.”

Le Petit Marche’s broad inventory of specialty cheeses – sourced locally from Midwestern cheesemongers and from select processors in France, Italy and Spain – comes with the same credentials.

“I try to get the kind of cheeses that aren’t readily available elsewhere,” says Gerth, who also is building relationships with microbreweries such as Scorched Earth in Algonquin and Capitol Brewery in Madison, Wis.

Of course, no bakery is complete without a few fresh-baked goodies (including some gluten-free items). Display cases dazzle with cinnamon rolls, Italian butter cookies, biscotti, brownies and lemon bars. Gerth’s son, William, runs the breadmaking operation and makes appearances at the seasonal farmers’ markets in both Crystal Lake and Cary.

“Everything is made from scratch without additives or preservatives,” says Gerth. “We bake a crusty French dinner bread daily, and on Saturday we sell six to a dozen different types of bread.”

A monthly international dinner is scheduled on select Saturdays and features a wine or region that’s paired with the food. Such special meals are detailed on the venue’s website and Facebook page.

A designated art wall displays the works of local artists each month, with the most popular creations hung during November and December.

Customers describe the look and feel of the place as “European” and consider it their neighborhood hangout. “They say they’re glad we are here . . . we fill a niche,” Gerth says.

She estimates sit-down versus carryout traffic is split evenly at lunch, but at dinner about 80 percent choose a sit-down meal.

Le Petit Marche is open Wed. 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thu.-Fri. 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Sat. 9:30 a.m.-9 p.m. and Sun. 9:30 a.m.-3 p.m. It’s closed on Mon. and Tue.