The New Cottage Food Economy

The New Cottage Food Economy(cont.)

Sabrina Meinhardt, general manager of Greene Grape Provisions, a specialty grocery store in Brooklyn, routinely scouts the nearby Brooklyn Flea for new products. Many of the items she’s decided to stock, like McClure’s Pickles and Nunu Chocolates, are “a little more rustic-looking, handmade,” which helps them stand out on the shelf. “It makes a better story that they’re small, local, and were discovered at the Flea,” she says.

OPERATING IN THE GRAY ZONE
The desire to participate in the dynamic local DIY food scene has left some market owners employing a looser approach to food safety. Meinhardt, of Greene Grape Provisions, says she asks her vendors if they work out of a commercial kitchen but does not require proof beyond a “yes” answer.

UnFancy Food’s Tom Mylan used to help stock the shelves of Marlow & Daughters, a butcher and sundries store adjacent to Marlow & Sons restaurant, with “local, small, and weird things people would bring in to us.”

Deciding whom to work with was “a calculated risk,” he says. “You’re making the decision based on the person who brought it in. If you know the person and they’re not flaky and they have their shit together, you’ll buy it. If it’s someone who’s a likable idiot who you San Francisco’s first Underground Market was held in a Victorian flat in the Mission District
Foraged mushrooms for sale at the Underground Market
can’t trust to wash their hands after they go to the bathroom, you’re not going to buy from them.”

The San Francisco Department of Public Health threatened to close down the first SF Underground Market, held in a Victorian flat in the Mission District, because many of its vendors weren’t licensed and didn’t work out of commercial kitchens. The market’s organizer, a hoodie-wearing professional forager named Iso Rabins who collects and sells wild food from San Francisco parks and backyards, was able to keep the market up and running by reclassifying it as a private club. Market-goers are required to sign up online as members ahead of time, and prices have been reclassified as “suggested donations.” For the most part, city health departments have left the DIY food movement alone. But all it would take is a few food poisoning complaints directed at a vendor or fair, and that could change.

Nonetheless, Rabins remains recalcitrant.

“When a single burger can contain meat from thousands of different cows, all grown in separate cramped feedlots around the globe, how can we possibly expect accountability?” he wrote in a blog post on CHOW.com. “There’s an entirely different type of accountability at the [Underground Market]: there’s trust that’s created when you look a producer straight in the eye.”

Critics complain that alternative food-retail schemes like Rabins’s market and Twittering food carts steal customers from legitimate small businesses that pay taxes and wages and that sometimes offer the same types of organic, artisanal products as those offered by unlicensed purveyors.

But what that argument fails to take into consideration is that buying prepared food at a grocery store doesn’t directly correlate to spending money in DIY-land. On a balmy San Francisco evening in January, a line of young people snaked around the block to get into the second Underground Market, where a DJ was spinning records and a pot of wild boar was braising on the stove. But the market-goers weren’t there to buy stuff they needed or even knew they wanted, just as people who visit Twittering food carts don’t always do it because they’re hungry and need to eat. (The portions are usually too small and pricey.) They were there to have an unusual, collective experience.

And for the vendors’ part, they’re often looking for the same thing. Tiffany Abuan of Mmm, Butter! says she got a business license but isn’t going to quit her day job anytime soon.

“I don’t have a business plan, or a vision,” says Abuan. “I’m just running until I’m not interested anymore.”

Photographs by Eric Slatkin

Lessley Anderson is senior editor at CHOW.