cottage food

SF Underground Market

Underground Market Shutdown : An Update

I started the Underground Market in 2009 as a reaction to the high bar of entry that has been created to start a food business, something that I experienced personally. Starting in a house in the Mission with seven vendors and 150 eaters, the market has grown to feed over 50,000 people and help over 400 vendors get their start.

As many of you have heard, the health department came to the last Underground Market on July 11th and served us a cease and desist letter, stating they no longer considered the market a private event.

The market was able to function to this point because it was considered a private event (hence the market sign-ups). We organized it in this way following a suggestion by the health department. Everyone who walks through the door is a member who knows they are eating un-certified food , so technically the health department doesn't have to be involved.

They have decided (apparently with pressure from the state level), that the market is no longer a private event, and can therefore not continue as it has. We have requested a meeting with the city attorney for a definition of what a private/public event is exactly, so we can determine where the line is, and continue running the market.

This was not an unexpected event. We’ve known that it was only a matter of time until someone became upset about the popularity of the event. Because we’ve been expecting it doesn’t mean that we accept it.

Over the last year and a half The Underground Market has grown into a supportive community of makers and eaters. We see that in the 30-50 new vendors that apply every month, bringing samples of foods they clearly poured their hearts into, and the thousands of people who walk through the door each month to eat that food.

Our goal is to keep this momentum going. We would like to see the market continue to exist much as it has because we feel that it provides a necessary venue for people starting new food businesses. We’re interested in providing a space for entrepreneurs who for a myriad of reasons are not able to abide by the regulations put in place. The regulations, upfront costs, red tape, and lack of clarity in procedures all too often stop amazing food from ever being eaten.

The market is used in different ways by different people. Some are home cooks that have always wanted to sell, but for various reasons have not been able. Cocotutti is a prime example. She sold her first chocolates at the market over a year ago, and has since won national awards, moved into a commercial kitchen, and is approaching markets to stock her goods. KitchenSidecar worked at a bio consulting job, with a food blog on the side, before she found the market. Now she cooks full-time, caters, holds her own dinners, and collaborates on a Vietnamese pop-up restaurant called Rice Paper Scissors with another vendor, Little Knock. Nosh This was working as an architect before he was laid off and turned to the world of candy. Following his recent appearances in the New York Times, his wholesale accounts have exploded, he has moved into a commercial kitchen, and is working to make “Bacon Crack” a household name.

These are a few examples of people whose business, and some would say lives, have been changed because of their exposure at the market. People who have been able to earn money for themselves instead of populating the unemployment rolls. People who are contributing to the local economy while at the same time expanding the local food community.

We want the Underground Market to be a space for food entrepreneurs to get started on a small scale. And we want to continue to offer them more resources to move forward. We have seen the need for some time to have a space where vendors can produce their wares commercially. A space where we can hold classes on food safety/business, have commercial kitchen space for vendor use, retail space for them to sell, and café space with rotating chefs for them to cook. This space will be a hub, a place where people can come together around the wealth of food being produced in our city. We are starting work on looking for a space/getting details together on the project, and will send more information out soon.

On a personal note, I want to say that I really appreciate all the support people have shown. From emails from friends to tweets from strangers, you have all shown that you think the market is an important event and that you want it to continue.

This shutdown is an opportunity to find a workable model that can help not only The Underground Market in SF, but similar markets all over the country. The precedent we set here will ripple across the country. It will effect not only San Francisco vendors, but vendors nationwide. From cottage food laws to street food, we’ve seen an explosion of opportunity for small entrepreneur food businesses pop up over the last several years. We will continue to move forward toward our goal of keeping the market open, and our struggle can be an opportunity to find yet another way to help this movement grow.

Thank you,

Iso Rabins founder, forageSF

------- How to be involved --------

Contact your local city supervisor or: - Call or email the Mission District supervisor, David Campos

David.Campos@sfgov.org (415) 554-5144

There are also more tangible ways to get involved, especially if you have legal expertise, so please email us if you’d like to get help out:

1. Keep the Underground Market - Legal and political organizing expertise, email markets@foragesf.com 2. forageSF incubator project - Investors, designers, contractors, lawyers email iso@foragesf.com

We want to hear what you think, so if you have any other ideas, questions, or suggestions, please email iso@foragesf.com. To stay up to date on what’s happening, follow our blog at foragesf.com/blog.

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SF Underground Market

Our goal?

Last night I gave a talk with Sandor Katz of “Wild Fermentation”. The focus was on the underground food scene in America. At the end of the talk someone brought up the point that something we weren’t discussing is what a huge political issue underground food is. How political change is the only way that we are going to make any real progress. I responded that I’m sure there are people out there who are interested in getting involved in the political process, endlessly talking to legislators about their cause and arguing, but that it wasn’t an interest of mine (now that I write that out, maybe I sounded like a bit of a jerk…but its true). It got me thinking. What are the goals of The Underground Market? On the surface the goal is to allow producers to get a leg up on their road to becoming a legit business. The roadblocks put in place by our current regulatory climate don’t allow for the creativity and spontaneity that are needed for a real robust artisan food scene to exist. It just costs too much to get everything in place to try anything new. I think that’s a shame. People should be able to easily follow their passion without being forced to abide by laws that were put in place for industrial-scale producers. That’s why the market exists, but what is the goal? Is the goal to help out just the producers that are able to participate in our market? What about people in other areas that don’t have access to an organization like The Underground Market? Luckily markets have been popping up all over the country, so there are more and more opportunities, but in the end, not everyone will have that access.

The problems the market addresses is not local or specific, but global and systemic. The problem is the belief that food made outside of a government certified space is inherently less safe. I personally don’t believe that’s true. Ive seen home kitchens where I would eat off the floor, restaurant kitchens that you couldn’t pay me to eat from, and everything in between. What makes food safe aren’t stainless steel countertops and 3 compartment sinks, but the care and attention of the person producing the food.  An industrial scale production loses this care by necessity, and therefore needs to be held to different standard that an artisan producer.

So what do we do? The obvious answer is that we change the laws. We’ve seen it happening in some places. 12 states now have cottage food laws that allow for the sale of “non-hazardous” foods. Jams, high acidity pickles etc. No home butchered or cured meats. A few towns in Maine have taken it a step further and voted to totally circumvent the state and federal food safety laws, although I recently read that the USDA has stated the towns don’t have the authority (. So what’s the goal? Is the goal to get California to follow Maine, and do away with regulations for small producers? Do we push for a cottage food law (that is really just a half measure, and doesn't address the root problem)? Do we go along as we are, just waiting for the day that someone decides to shut us down and fine us? I'm not sure.

I don’t like the feeling that I am spending all my effort in the production of something with a tenuous future. I don’t like the idea that any beaurocrat that I offend has the power to take away my livelihood, but I also don’t like the idea of endless political discussions with government. The reason I live my life the way I do is because I have no interest in spending my time talking in circles. I would rather be creating something, but if that creation has no future, what is the value?  For me the value is opening peoples eyes to their own ability to live their lives the way they want to.  Showing them that they have the skills to succeed at what they love to do.  That’s enough for me, but if we really want to change things, maybe it wont be enough for long.