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Notes from the underground market

Iso Rabins sells foraged mushrooms and greens at San Francisco's Underground Market. (Wendy Goodfriend)

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

By Jane Black  |  June 8, 2010; 1:00 PM ET
Categories:  To Market, To Market  | Tags: Jane Black, farmers markets  
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Not a surprise that I love the idea! Hmm, may HUSH Supper Club should consider a bit of underground marketing of the HUSH garden's surplus herbs and veggies this summer in addition to HUSH suppers...

Reminds me of Michael Pollan's foraging of mushrooms and wild boar.

Posted by: GeetaHUSH | June 8, 2010 11:00 PM | Report abuse

I have to ask that you rethink this statment,"technically, wild foods have no producer." I am a person who produces wild foods and together wild harvested products - including American Pine Nuts. In fact, I am a producer who is certified wild crop organic by Oregon Tilth and as a processor of wild crops.
It is not as simple as cut and snip, wash it, cook it - especially if one is certified. Producing wild crops takes skill and its hard work. I am glad to see people taking note of wild crops as speciality agriculture. It has been going on for generations.
Penny Frazier
A Wild Crops Farm

Posted by: penny9 | June 14, 2010 11:16 PM | Report abuse

I AM A "wild crops producer". I own 20 acres of CERTIFIED "wild organic" land and have a lease access to 100 acres of the largest private forest in the US that is also "certified wild organic". I think the farmers market is in the wrong for denying these hard working people a venue. Not that conventional farmers don't work hard, they do, I know these people, and I’m telling you they REALLY work long hard hours. The issue here, I think is, "do wild crafters use food handling safety guidelines?” As a producer processor of these types of products I can say, YES! Most of us are very picky about how our products are handled, that's because in order to continue to make a living we must have a quality product. Good quality means good handling practices. I would think most "wild crops producer / processors" handle product better than the local McD's or BK. We have pride in OUR products. They are fresh, clean and wholesome. No need to go "underground", our farmers market welcomes us with open arms.

Posted by: ozarkdomes | June 15, 2010 9:15 AM | Report abuse

Sadly, it seems likely that that requirement that market vendors are producers of their wares relates more to the desire to exclude resellers and wholesalers than to the exclusion of wildcrafters and food foragers. It's a shame that the farmers' market as an institution does not have the awareness and flexibility to address this emerging issue, unless exclusion to the benefit of "farmers" is the true objective.

Posted by: ddub1 | June 15, 2010 1:49 PM | Report abuse

How unfortunate that mother nature, as the "primary producer", is not permitted to sell her wares at the farmer's market via good land stewards. I suppose if corn were growing wild it would not be permitted, either?

Is the forest owner allowed to sell their own goods at the farmer's market referenced in this article? That would work okay in areas like the NE where the woods are all privately held, but it would seem like a punishment for keeping woods in the public trust.

Responsible harvesters do much to ensure the continuing bounty of their chosen grounds, even when those grounds are public lands, such as ensuring the health of the ecosystem that their native foods grow in. Penny is correct that it takes more intelligence and labor than running around in the woods with a shovel and a bucket to make a living off truffles and mushrooms.

Perhaps the SF farmer's market could request that harvesters of private lands show proof of permission to harvest, like a permit or land ownership.

Posted by: stephmvasquez | June 15, 2010 11:23 PM | Report abuse

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