Underground Food Markets: The New Speakeasies

Pssst… wanna buy some contraband pickles?

First came the informal but still legitimate businesses like food trucks, pop-up restaurants, and CSAs. Now we have the appearance of their unlicensed brethren: the home bakers, canners, pasta makers, meat curers, and foragers that make up an underground food scene that’s gaining steam in cities around the world.

Mmm… that’s so good, I bet you could sell it.

It used to be a compliment. Now it’s a business plan.

Take the growing DIY movement. Throw in a high unemployment rate, some entrepreneurial spirit, the promotional capabilities of social media, and a dash of hipster hype. You end up with something like Anarchy in a Jar (jam maker), Brazelton Price (demi-glace), Bundt (cake baker), and Charcuterie Underground (bacon and sausage).

For the producers, it’s an opportunity to get a foot in the door in the food industry. Many of them have been turned away or turned off by farmer’s markets with their waiting lists, vendor fees, and stringent health code and licensing requirements. The underground markets allow the producers to indulge a penchant for creative cooking, connect with a passionate base of customers, and reap the full benefit of retail sales.

For the consumer, the markets represent authenticity, connection to growers and producers, and a chance to experience cutting-edge cuisine. And of course there’s an automatic coolness factor when you add ‘underground’ to the name of anything.

Is it legal? Is it safe?

Think of the merchants’ wares as the new bathtub gin—made with passion and a heartfelt belief in the wrong-headedness of the law. Because of costs, because of access, many underground food producers do not cook in commercially licensed kitchens as required by mainstream distribution channels. That then bars them from purchasing sales permits and liability insurance. Legal? In a word – no, although some markets skirt the law by forming nominal ‘clubs’ and only selling to ‘members.’

The question of safety is not as easy an answer. With growing concerns about the integrity of our national food system, even small, artisanal producers have fallen under scrutiny. Some states have chosen to relax regulations while others are cracking down on unlicensed operations. Underground producers and markets are often victims of their own success. Instead of flying under the radar, the buzz they generate attracts the attention of regulators forcing them to comply or shut down.

Many underground market customers take reassurance from the personal nature of their interactions with producers who tend to be a mix of passionate, committed amateurs, and professionals who are starting small. The markets themselves also employ quality controls through the selection or audition process.

Notes from the underground.

In keeping the with covert nature of the food underground, most markets would prefer that their direct links not be posted.

You can read about trends and events within the culinary avant garde in Foodie Underground, a weekly column that appears on the website ecosalon.

Civil Eats is, hands-down, the web’s best resource for exposition and discussion of food-related laws and policy.

It’s everywhere! Nile Guide looks at the underground food market scene in London, Amsterdam, and San Francisco.

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12 Responses to Underground Food Markets: The New Speakeasies

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  2. I love that this is a movement. What a great way for food entrepreneurs to test out their ideas. In Denver, check out the Denver Handmade Homemade markets and the Mile High Food Swappers club. Both great groups along these lines.

  3. Thank you for writing this very helpful article. I’ll without a doubt return later on to read more.

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  6. What a fascinating topic. The idea of an underground market does have a rather romanticized appeal to it. Thanks for the resources. I’ll keep my eyes open.

  7. I think it is fascinating, and for safety concerns I guess I would want some background info. Excellent article:)

  8. Janice says:

    One thing I am reading about Denver is the wealth of interesting doughnut shops. Lucky you!

  9. Janice says:

    I think re. safety that you have to remember this is not like you’re just buying something off the street from a random individual. There should be some integrity attached to the sponsoring market.

  10. Interesting stuff! I think that it’s great for some quality cooks to be able to share their food with others witout having to jump through all the red tape and expense which the government would put on them. At the same time, it is a little scary that some hack may be able to sell you something as well. But if you know food, I think that the chances of getting good product vastly out weighs the chances of getting garbage.

  11. Love it! There are little things like that popping around Denver but not to the level of Portland or Seattle or New York. Hoping for more over here! As for safe, it is probably much safer that the canned chicken stock at the store full of god knows what. Cool post!

  12. What an interesting trend! I love goods from small home-based businesses, and frankly they are probably cleaner and higher quality than commercial processors because their name is attached to their product.

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