Part two of a series in which SFoodie asked the question: With the Underground Market now shut down, what would it take for San Francisco's aspiring food microventures to go legit?
When I asked Richard Lee, director of the city's Environmental Health Regulatory Program, what it would take for a small-scale vendor to sell his or her food at an event like the Underground Market, the first thing he mentioned was for all the food to be prepared in a commercial kitchen. "You can't make anything at home and sell it to the general public," he said. "That's because anywhere [the vendors] make food would have to be inspected to make sure that it's in compliance with the California Retail Food Code." Certain states have passed cottage laws allowing jammers and picklers to sell food they make at home, but not California.
Finding a commercial kitchen is the part of the process that Salsa Delfina's Robin Knight is currently wrangling with as she and her brother Clay try to take their grandmother's salsa from the Underground Market to farmers' markets and grocery stores.
"Commercial kitchens like La Cocina cost $20 to $40 an hour, and if you need to use any kind of specific equipment, such as an immersion blender, it's that more expensive figure," she explains. Most of the commercial kitchens she's been checking out rent kitchen time by the hour, and then refrigerated storage costs more. "A four-foot-wide shelf, which is perhaps one and a half feet tall, is $75 a month. So if you're making food in bulk, you need quite a bit of those."
That's not the only cost.
Megan Gordon, whose Marge Bakery sells granola to grocery stories and cookies and pies at farmers' markets, adds that you have to supply your own equipment. "Most commercial kitchens have ovens and big mixers, hopefully, but there are a ton of smallwares that you'll need to purchase yourself -- things you wouldn't have at home," she says. "So I had to buy 20 baking sheets, industrial-sized mixing bowls, and the like, spending $1,000 all told."
Laura Miller is in the same boat as Knight. Working under the name Sidesaddle Kitchen, Miller sold sold vegan, raw, and gluten-free desserts at the Underground Market, but now she's trying to turn it into a full-time business, working odd jobs to pay for permits and costs as she goes. "Most of the commercial kitchens I've spoken to require liability insurance, around $500 to $600 a year," she says. The insurance issue comes up later, too -- so if a given commercial kitchen doesn't require it, someone later down the line might.
Knight is exploring another option: finding a restaurant willing to rent out kitchen space during an off hour. "There are so many restaurants in the city that don't open until dinnertime and have perfectly good kitchens, " she says. "Sometimes, if you know someone who has a restaurant -- or a bagel shop or bar with a little kitchen in the back -- that can be a cheaper route. If you offer them a flat rate of $500 a month, say, that's $500 they wouldn't otherwise make. That's one way to get around the traditional certified kitchen debacle."
Last year, SFoodie wrote about two such arrangements in the Mission, and have heard of other kitchen-sharing agreements since. They're out there.
The full "Going Legit" series:
- Part 1: Getting a business license
- Part 2: Working out of a commercial kitchen
- Part 3: What's the minimum an Underground Market vendor would need to be legit?
- Part 4: Selling at the traditional farmers markets
- Part 5: Selling to grocery stores
- Part 6: The future of the Underground Market