San Francisco's Libertarian Food Market Is Closing–But the Movement it Inspired Will Continue

San Francisco's famed Forage Underground Market will shut down later this month. But the tracks laid by its founder Iso Rabins--and others around the country--mean that the choice to make and sell many foods locally is increasingly returning to small entrepreneurs.


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.

But it's not just norms that are being upended. States are increasingly re-writing their food laws to enable a blossoming movement of home cooks who sell what are known as "cottage foods." 

These cottage food laws allow home cooks "to make and sell a wide range of products without the need to invest in commercial kitchen space or comply with the zoning and regulatory measures that govern larger producers."

As I wrote last year at Hit & Run, these laws "help the entrepreneurs behind small startup [food] ventures operated out of the home opt out of the crushing regulations faced by restaurants and other food sellers."

The laws largely permit home cooks to make and sell what are very awkwardly known as "non-potentially hazardous foods." Cottage food laws generally consider baked goods and jams to be non-potentially hazardous but pickled foods and meats to be verboten.

Cottage food laws have been multiplying rapidly around the country. About three-dozen states now have such laws in place.

Last month, California became the latest state to adopt a cottage food law. Counties in the state have already begun implementing the state's new cottage foods law ahead of next month—when the law officially goes into force.

California's law will no doubt help some of the same food entrepreneurs who might have taken advantage of selling at the Forage Underground Market.

All told, Rabins tells me the Underground Market helped serve as a springboard for more than 400 budding food entrepreneurs in San Francisco.

"What's great is that many of the vendors who started out at the market as home cooks have since…. opened restaurants," wrote Rabins in his recent post. "Others have gotten great press for their accomplishments, and still others are in stores and shops all over the city."

And while this facet of Rabins's work will end—the final Underground Market will take place in San Francisco on December 22—thankfully, Rabins appears set to remain on the scene forging new food ideas and entrepreneurs.

Over the summer, Rabins managed to raise more than $150,000 in a Kickstarter campaign designed to help Forage purchase equipment, hire staff, and pay construction and other fees to help launch Forage Kitchen, which Rabins bills as "a co-working space for food."

That description fits nicely alongside his belief that food plays a larger role in transforming not just the individual lives of the entrepreneurs he's helped.

"I think that what's really exciting about food right now is its ability to rework the way our country is organized," Rabins tells me. "Away from faceless mega corporations with no accountability, and towards local artisans that you can talk to about the food they're serving you."