Regulators shut down Underground Market, triggering debate over permits and food safety
He says that on the whole, people cooking small batches pay much more attention to their ingredients and processes than industrial food companies do. Rabin said that while the country's food safety system works pretty well, it doesn't allow for much locally based innovation in new models for making and sharing food.
"The Health Department's position makes sense because this is the system that has existed, this is the system that they know and that their jobs support, and it's a system that works in a lot of ways. But it's also a system that was really created for industrial processes," Rabins says. "Unfortunately the way regulations work, top-down is one-size-fits-all, but that's just not the way it is."
That gets to the meat of the issue: whether and how much the city should get involved in people's food habits. Where is the line between public restaurants and private homes — and are there ways of creating hybrids of the two? It's an ongoing battle in San Francisco between regulating restaurants (and netting taxes) while still promoting an innovative food industry that attracts locals and tourists alike.
In the past few years, the mobile food truck craze has hit San Francisco with little bits of foodie culture from all over the world. Entrepreneurs say it's too difficult and expensive to start a successful restaurant in SF, so they're trying small-time pop-ups instead.
At first they went unregulated, but now laws define what they can sell, the permits they need, and limit their mobility. Permits are expensive too, starting at $1660 for initial basic coverage, which is why Rabins says the Underground Market provides an additional support for motivated locals. As city officials have closed big budget deficits year after year without any substantial increases in general tax revenue, fees and permit costs have risen substantially in recent years.
According to Rabins, getting the Underground Market up to code means, "getting all the vendors commercial kitchen space, making them get catering licenses, which is around $600, making them pay for vendor event permits, which is $140 per event, and then I would have to buy a sponsor permit which is another $1200 per event plus event insurance plus, plus, plus all these things that would essentially destroy the spirit of the event. It would make the bar way too high."
Tightening the membership rules is another option, such as making people sign up weeks in advance or requiring member cards. Richard Lee, the director of environmental health regulatory programs at SFPHD, says that regardless of the vendor's complaints, the regulations must be met.
"We think that these are reasonable options," Lee said. "Anyone who is going to sell to the public needs to meet certain requirements, and unfortunately some of those requirements are going to be costly. They have to pay for permits and whatever those permits cost they're going to have to pay."
Until some agreement can be reached, the Underground Market won't be operating, and San Franciscans will have to find their fix at the numerous above ground markets and restaurants. Lee says that he hopes that the market meets city demands, and soon, as this kind of entrepreneurial innovation is essential to a thriving food economy.
"We do encourage the micro-enterprises, and there are possible ways to have that started in San Francisco," Lee said. "It is possible that there may be legislation in the future that might be supported by the Board [of Supervisors] to make it easier for them to get permitted, so there are things that can be done. For us, though, it is food safety and public health that are the most important things."
But Rabins is already looking far beyond just the small market model.