Notes from the underground market
Iso Rabins is an urban forager. He collects mushrooms, wild greens and acorns, which he grinds into flour. Like any ambitious food entrepreneur, he hoped one day to sell his wares at a farmers market in San Francisco, where he lives.
But Rabins, 29, couldn’t get into a market. The strict rules require that any vendor be the primary producer of the food sold. And, technically, wild foods have no producer. And so, like any ambitious food entrepreneur, the founder of ForageSF found a cunning way to get his products to customers: an underground market.
The first one was held in December at a private home in the city’s Mission District. Eight vendors and nearly 200 buyers showed up. Last week, Rabins held the fourth underground market with 70 sellers hawking jams, beef jerky, hand-churned bacon butter and prepared foods such as Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches and raclette, a French mountain specialty of melted cheese and potatoes. More than 2,000 attendees signed up online to attend. In doing so, they acknowledged that some of the foods for sale may not have been produced in an inspected kitchen. Shoppers also paid a $2 entry fee to help cover the costs of the venue.
“There are all of these people who make really amazing stuff at a highly professional level. But they can’t make that jump to a farmers market or to selling in a store,” Rabins said. “We think of ourselves as an incubator.”
The market, Rabins says, lowers the financial barriers to entry. But, more important, it helps vendors overcome what he calls emotional hurdles. Many of the vendors are passionate about what they make, but they can’t believe producing beef jerky could be a viable business. “They need someone to walk up and say, ‘This is the best beef jerky I’ve ever had,’ ” Rabins said.
The underground markets are a twist on underground restaurants, a trend that also began in San Francisco. And they are spreading just as quickly. Underground markets have sprouted in London, Amsterdam, even Boise, Idaho.
But are they legal?
Initially, the San Francisco Health Department wasn't pleased with the idea. Inspectors showed up at the first market. And although they didn’t shut it down, they made clear it isn’t legal to sell foods that have not been prepared in a certified kitchen.
To get around that, Rabins has made the market a club. The only people who can come are those on his e-mail list. To be on the list, you must attest that you understand you are buying truly homemade foods. “It’s tenuous,” admits Rabins. “The reason the Health Department is there is to put checks on these things. And I support its existence.” He said he vets all vendors that sell at the market to make sure they have a lot of experience making their products and that they know how to store and transport them.
What do you think? Are underground markets a good idea, or a food-safety disaster ready to happen? Anyone ready to start one in Washington?
-- Jane Black
June 8, 2010; 1:00 PM ET
Categories: To Market, To Market | Tags: Jane Black, farmers markets
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