How health departments can squash food entrepreneurs: Forage SF at risk

Sierra Morel and Liberty Duck Risotto

A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending an underground “Wild Dinner” in San Francisco. 80 people in an expansive, borrowed loft descended for a weekend evening to dine on food prepared by a chef who foraged all the food for this dinner. I know… uber California, right? Wild onions made into a soup, topped with wild morel mushrooms; wild nettle galette; Liberty Duck risotto with Sierra morels with spring asparagus. I could go on… but suffice it to say that this chef goes above and beyond what the celebrity toques do today.

But entrepreneurs living outside the health department rules, like Iso Rabins – the founder of forageSF, keep hitting brick walls.

For the past couple of years, in addition to these underground dinners, Rabins has been running the SF Underground Market, which features creations from budding chefs and food-related businesses, catering to an eager group of foodies willing to accept the fact that the state government hasn’t sanctioned these vendors. Hundreds of people didn’t care and bought anyway, but this pre-regulation food playground is under threat. Why can’t we all just get along? If people are coming en masse to these markets, under the full imspression that the health department hasn’t sanctioned the event, why does the government feel compelled to get involved? It is revenue they’re not collecting from the permits or is it actual fear for constituents’ health? The motivation is suspect, as best. The implications of this could spread to other cities who seek to introduce new products to the market and even launch careers. Your thoughts?

The unedited version of Iso’s plea for help, which outlines the idiocracy of government:

“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

Live in San Francisco and want to get involved?

Contact your local city supervisor or call or email  the Mission District supervisor, David Campos, or (415) 554-5144

Or they’re asking, if you have legal expertise and want to help, email

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  1. Wow that is horrible!! Thanks for letting us know! I am planning to visit San Fran sometime this year or next and was hoping to visit there. I hope there’s a big enough riot and things will change back to normal!


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