This month marks the end of a groundbreaking entrepreneurial food initiative known as the Forage Underground Market.
For three years, the Underground Market served as a roving San Francisco meeting place for budding food entrepreneurs and their hip and hungry customers.
A $5 membership fee would gain a person entrance to the market. Once inside, members would be treated to a variety of foods prepared and sold by a rolling list of unlicensed vendors. These Underground Markets could draw more than 2,000 people.
The New York Times profiled the Underground Market not once but twice, characterizing it as “a tribal gathering of young chefs, vendors and their iron-stomached followers [that is] remaking the traditional farmers market as an indie food rave.” Copycat markets popped up as far away as Amsterdam.
The Underground Market will cease to exist this month because—as you probably guessed by now—it fell victim to California regulators.
The California Department of Public Health and San Francisco Fire Department shuttered the market in June 2011. They hit Forage and its founder and leader, Iso Rabins, with a cease and desist order that forbade Forage and the vendors who took part in the Underground Market from “donating, giving away, selling, trading, or other means of sharing food with/to the public until approval and permits are issued[.]”
I met Rabins over beers in San Francisco in fall 2011. At the time he was still optimistic that the Underground Market might survive.
It did. And it didn’t.
While Rabins revived the market, thanks to regulators he was forced to do so minus the “underground” element that made the market so popular. He couldn’t admit new vendors, and existing vendors had to hold a permit.
Rabins, who tells me he’s spent “most of my life working in restaurants,” moved to San Francisco after finishing film school. He launched ForageSF—a “handmade community” that operates the Underground Market—in 2008.
Rabins, like me, is skeptical that government permitting and food inspections are a necessary precondition to safer food.
“The idea that what makes food safe is at the local level is not inspectors, but the inherent responsibility and care created by the local community,” Rabins wrote recently. “I think we proved that point. With over 50,000 people eating everything from Webber grill fired pizza to pulled pork, there was not one illness reported to the health department.”
I doubt this was due to any "iron stomach[s]" the New York Times claims the Underground Market customers each possess.
Though the Underground Market will soon—to use the language of regulators—cease and desist, Rabins’s creation will be remembered as part of the leading edge of a larger trend.
While regulators pushed back at Rabins’s underground markets, the flood of interest in hyperlocal, community-based foods he and others around the country are both fostering and responding to is increasingly difficult for regulators to contain. From underground supper clubs and street lobstah pushas to nonprofit incubator kitchens like San Francisco’s La Cocina and for-profit companies like Washington, DC’s Feastly that feature accomplished cooks serving meals in their own homes, entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs are helping to re-write societal norms around food provisioning in communities around the country on what would appear to be an unprecedented scale.