Editor's Note: In many countries, the underground or informal economy is the majority of the economy, in the US it is a sprout bursting through concrete to breath life into a dying, stifled city. The laws are made partially for public health reasons and partially to reduce market competition against already wealthy capitalists and keep people slaves to low wage jobs, but how many people die of food poisoning compared to hunger (not being able to earn enough money or not be able to buy affordable food) in this country?
From Iso Rabins, founder of the San Francisco Underground Market: 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.
------- How to be involved --------
Contact your local city supervisor or:
- Call or email the Mission District supervisor, David Campos
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
2. forageSF incubator project
- Investors, designers, contractors, lawyers email email@example.com
We want to hear what you think, so if you have any other ideas, questions, or suggestions, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. To stay up to date on what’s happening, follow our blog at foragesf.com/blog.