the underground market

SF Underground Market

Creating an incubator kitchen : A rough guide #1

As you may have heard, we have embarked upon an adventure to start a forageSF incubator kitchen.  This yet to be named space will most likely be in Soma, and if all goes to plan, will open within the year. Someone recently suggested that I start blogging about our process, as a resource for others that are thinking of starting similar projects around the country, so as we work on getting the space open, Ill be talking here about what we’re up to. Everything from what kind of contractors we hire, to licensing, to more interesting fare, like what classes we’re organizing and what the first months rooftop movie programming will be.

My hope is that these posts will serve as a rough guide to others working on similar projects around the country.   I am by no means an expert in the construction of a million dollar shared use kitchen, but if you have questions please ask them here, and I will do my best to answer them.

The idea process:

Opening this kitchen has been something we’ve been thinking about for a while now. The popularity of the underground market definitely shows a need for this kind of space. There is a surging community of would be good makers in this city that the just need the chance to start their businesses. They are searching for help, financial certainly, but also emotional. They need to be shown they can, not only by being given a space to work, but by being provided a road map, and support along the way.

In addition to hard core producers, I also saw a real need on the non-professional/eater side.  People don’t wait in those lines the The Underground Market just to eat, but also to be a part of something. They want to connect with the people cooking their food.  In a food centered town, where going to the next new restaurant means you may glance the chef through a swinging kitchen door, talking to the person who cooked your food, and seeing how excited they are to make it, is a revelation. When conceiving our kitchen, I had both of these group in mind.  So how to create a space that engaged both of these groups, without losing focus of our core mission?

A straight rental kitchen wouldn’t do it. We needed to bring in more than just people starting businesses, especially if we wanted to offer reduced rates to producers, we would need several income streams. That is how we arrived at the model of having several different arms simultaneously of the same business.

Next post : Deciding what to include in the kitchen

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.