SF Underground Market

Lessons Learned from A Year of Underground Markets


A year has passed since the first SF Underground Market.  In one year we moved from a small house in the Mission to various warehouses, and eventually to a 17,000 sq ft. event space called SomArts.  We started out with a list of 7 vendors to over 500, from attendance of 150 to well over 2,500.  The idea has spread, and now there are markets in Boise Idaho, Amsterdam, London, Colorado, Marin, and right here in SF.  Many of our vendors have gone from being people with passion, cooking for their friends on the weekends, to full time Artisan producers, selling at stores and farmers markets throughout the area.  The market has morphed from a one off event into a semi-monthly vendor incubator.


One year ago we threw the first SF Underground Market, in a small house on Bryant St.  Despite being paid a visit by the health department, the market was a success (read my post about that here).  Throughout the year I’ve found that there are an abundance of home cooks out there producing amazing food.  People with the skills to go pro, the problem is a lot of people don’t think they can. For whatever reason; financial, emotional, they don’t do it.   There are many hurdles to getting into traditional markets. Putting yourself on a waiting list for a vendor spot at a farmers market (often a year waiting list, and you need to already be producing to get on the waiting list), then investing $2,000 to make a batch of jam that you’re not sure will sell, and then trying to make a profit, all the while using organic ingredients, and this all on a salary that is probably just covering your expenses while working a full time job, makes this a tough proposition.  Again, a lot of people do it.  But I believe it doesn’t have to be that way, and it seems others agree.


We certainly hit a vein of some sort.  People love making stuff; be it “Bacon Chocolate Crack” (Nosh This), Vietnamese Crepes (Little Knock), or Jalapeno Jam (Inna Jam).  And perhaps just as important, people like to eat what their neighbors are making. Instead of picking it up at Whole Foods, you get to talk to the producer, and learn through them how your food was produced.


What is most interesting about the wares at the market is not so much what they are, but how they were made. They were created by a person, rather then a machine-assisted assembly line.  This is often a single person that decided that instead of having a Desperate Housewives marathon, they would get off the couch and make the thing they have been wanting to make for years. The market is a room full of inspiration.  Many of the vendors we have were first attendees who were then inspired by what they saw and decided they could do it too. This is the point of the market. The sales are good. People need to pay the rent, but more importantly, people need to be shown that they can do the thing they’ve always wanted to do. Be it making pickles, roasting whole pigs, making homemade kimchi hotdogs, or Vietnamese crepes.  It is most inspiring to see such a wide range of people become vendors.


The past year has been full of lessons, such as the finer points of room capacity, how to deal with long lines, trash separation, and what pulling 100,000 watts of electricity looks like.  I have learned that you can in fact have too many cupcakes, and that pork belly buns, although delicious and popular, don’t turn a profit.  I have learned that people don’t really want to carry home bags full of jam while drinking at 10pm (hence the day market), and that if you roast a whole pig, people will come.


It has been a surprisingly good year.  We grew something out of nothing. In the next year we will be focusing more on the incubator aspect of the market. We are working on providing more vendor support, by organizing a group of professionals that will help the vendors figure out what it means to really be in business; from logo and website design to legal and financial help.


The market is not a destination for an established business, but a stepping stone to realizing one’s passions and potentials, while providing the opportunities and tools to do it.  I’ve recently realized that up until now, most vendors have had to figure out what it means to start a food business from the ground up on their own, and I would like to change that.  Most businesses are started without the support they need to succeed.  What the Underground Market means to be is a community of people helping each other to change that.

If you’re reading this, you are probably involved in the market in some way, as a customer or a vendor. We’d love to hear about your experiences with the market. What’s good about the market and what would you like to see happen?

Iso Rabins 1/1/2011

photos by Robin Jolin