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Public Consumption: San Francisco Gets on Food Trend as Old as Civilization 

Tuesday, Oct 28 2014
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Like most ambitious young chefs, Scott Peterson and Ted Wilson dream of someday opening their own restaurant in San Francisco. At their food concept Fine & Rare, you can get seasonal, sustainable seafood like house-smoked salmon or cod sausages; they hope to one day turn it into a small restaurant paired with a wine shop. Over the past three years, the duo has worked catering jobs, set up a tent at Off the Grid's mobile food gatherings, and looked for a restaurant space to call their own.

But finding and securing a lease on a restaurant is difficult to impossible in a city with rising commercial rents and the densest collection of restaurants in the country. After a few false starts, Peterson and Wilson connected with Tidewater Capital, owner of the long-shuttered Hollywood Billiards building at Sixth and Market. The 4,000-square-foot space had fallen into disrepair; Tidewater plans to tear it down and erect condos in the next two years.

So in the meantime, Peterson and Wilson decided to build a European-style food hall in the cavernous room, a "super pop-up" that would last as long as the building's developers were navigating San Francisco's labyrinthine permitting and approval process. Like roommates banding together to save on rent, the two recruited their food-vendor friends to set up stalls alongside Fine & Rare, giving all of them a chance to test the brick-and-mortar business in a space no one would be able to afford on his or her own. They call it The Hall.

The place is cozy and welcoming, with café lights and side-by-side wooden stands that showcase everything from Raj + Singh Indian food to pho from Little Green Cyclo. Thanks to their bar of local beer and wine supplied by Anchor Spirits, the place is as busy at happy hour as it is at lunch. Diners eat at long, picnic-style communal tables or outside on the patio alongside the street circus that still happens every day on that stretch of sidewalk on that stretch of Market Street.

One of the first vendors to sign on was The Whole Beast, the popular catering company that has brought lamb poutine, gyros, and other whole-animal cooking to events like Off the Grid's Picnic at the Presidio, corporate catering gigs, and festivals like Hardly Strictly Bluegrass and Eat Real. Owner John Fink sees The Hall as a way to find a new audience and experiment with things like charcuterie plates and smoked turkey tails that he's not able to try at his catering gigs. Plus, it's a space he'd never be able to afford on his own. "We just got our smoker so we're going to be smoking [meat] on Market Street. That's just bragging rights for life," he says.

Meats on the fire, strangers gathering, communities formed for the purposes of feeding: We've seen this before. Ancient civilization started with agriculture, but modern civilization, you might say, started with the second part of that equation: the part where everyone got together to trade or sell the goods they'd just discovered how to grow. These active little cores of community and commerce gave birth to and were reinforced by cities. The Greeks called it the agora.

The marketplace spread culture and ideas throughout the world, one agora at a time. The United States, however, has never quite embraced the public market. While most of the world's major cities have soaring buildings selling everything from fresh produce to street food, the closest American analog has been the exhausted pizza and mysterious orange chicken of the mall food court.

This is changing. Market halls are making serious inroads in American cities. Five of these food halls will open in San Francisco in the next six months, an extension of a trend that's happening all over the country. They vary in their makeup — the food might come from stands or steam trays; they might resemble food courts or supermarket cafes — but they all offer diners more choice than a traditional restaurant. Now if you want tacos and your friend wants sushi, you can have both. And instead of coming from a national chain and made with questionable ingredients, the food is often local and sustainably grown.

A convergence of market forces and national food trends has made this happen: the growth of farmers markets and increased diner interest in where their food comes from; the small plates trend, which weaned people off the entrée and got them used to tapas-style eating; the rise of food trucks, pop-ups, and other avenues for talented chefs who can't or won't go the traditional brick-and-mortar route; the large, empty spaces in dense urban areas that once housed businesses that didn't survive the recession, and now can be "activated," in real estate talk, thanks to a recovering economy.

But we're talking about San Francisco in 2014 and that means that we're also talking about the great change it is undergoing. The city is becoming denser: The cranes are moving again, and more than 10,000 residential units are scheduled to open in the city, most of them centered in the downtown core, and most of them with ground-floor retail space that needs to be filled. The tech boom is bringing more single Millennials, and their eclectic eating habits, into the city. Developers see all this — and the success that retailers like Whole Foods have found with grab-and-go and prepared foods — and are opening new market halls that fit the needs of the evolving city and its eaters.

Just as it made financial sense for medieval vendors to band together and sell in a centralized place, the same aggregation impulse is happening again thanks to San Francisco's prohibitive prices. If food trucks were individual merchants with their carts, market halls are the new agora. And with them, San Francisco is one step closer to the European-style city it's always aspired to be.

The Hall takes inspiration from spaces like 331 Cortland, a sliver of a market on Bernal Heights that packs five vendors into about a thousand square feet. The building's owner, Debra Resnik, had an empty storefront in 2008 and didn't know what to do with it in the midst of the recession. She hit on the idea of a place where people could incubate small culinary businesses — a training ground for small food vendors. 331 Cortland has been home to several businesses, including Bernal Cutlery, which opened a storefront in the Mission last year, but its most famous alum is Ichi Sushi. The now-insanely popular Mission omakase spot started as a counter selling sushi-grade fish and Japanese deli items, including the shiso pesto noodle salad it's still known for.

"[331 Cortland] gave us a chance to test the waters, figure out what people were interested in, get direct feedback before we really went all-in and opened a restaurant," says Ichi co-owner Erin Acheula. They treated the market as a launchpad as they looked for a space in the neighborhood and raised capital. "We built in a customer base, and [when we opened the restaurant on Mission Street] everyone just came down the hill and joined us for dinner," she says.

331 Cortland was also the inspiration for Second Act Marketplace, a five-stall food hall/incubator in the Upper Haight. Betsy and Jack Rix opened the market in January 2014, as a reinvention of a space that had housed their independent Red Vic Theater for more than 30 years. "It is so daunting to start a business in San Francisco now," says Betsy. "We did this because we had this great big empty space, and with what's going on with retail, what would be more useful?" Second Act offers necessary business infrastructure that all the vendors share, from a mop sink to a commercial kitchen to handicapped-equipped bathroom stalls. It also gives vendors a storefront on Haight, right by the park.

This use of large spaces to house several smaller businesses isn't just happening in the city's empty billiards halls and theaters — it's also happening in the new condos that are popping up like mushrooms around the city. A similar market hall will be going into the ground floor of the new building at 2175 Market, across the street from the Castro Safeway. It's helmed by bar-owning trio Jordan Langer, Pete Glikshtern, and Jeff Whitmore (of Public Works, Jones, and Odd Job) and will have a small cocktail bar and specialty liquor store on the premises. But Langer says that they want to focus on fostering 10 to 15 small businesses in the 4,000-square-foot space, selected from proposals and neighborhood input.

"It's really exciting to be able to give local San Franciscans the ability to get into awesome retail opportunities. With how crazy-expensive retail space is, now no one can come into the city," he says. "I really think this is the wave of the future for retail in San Francisco."

And why not? It's been the wave of the past, too.

The concept of the market hall is about as new as cooking over an open fire. It certainly predates the modern restaurant. The first covered market in Paris, Les Halles, was built around the same time as the Third Crusade; the Chinese have been snacking at Taiwan's night markets for more than a millennium. With their combination of farm stands and food stalls, markets have always been important public spaces and community focal points — places for neighbors to shop for groceries, have a bite to eat, trade the gossip of the day.

Market halls really came into their own in the mid-1800s as casual town markets became systematized under the industrial revolution. There are beautiful, historic markets in virtually every major city in the world: La Boqueria in Barcelona, Tsukiji Market in Tokyo, Borough Market in London, Mercado de la Merced in Mexico City, Mercado Central in Chile, Kreta Ayer Wet Market in Singapore, the Grand Market Hall in Budapest, Lawrence Market in Toronto, Castries Market in St. Lucia.

America has a few of these markets, too — Boston's Faneuil Hall, L.A.'s Grand Central Market, Seattle's Pike Place Market — but this is a country ruled by fast food and car culture more than urban density and farm-to-table dining. Our greatest contribution to the market hall model was the food court, invented in 1970s New Jersey as a way to keep shoppers in the mall longer.

The Bay Area saw a market hall boom similar to today's in the '80s and '90s, says Sara Wilson, owner of Rockridge Market Hall in Oakland, which opened in 1987. Plans for the Ferry Building's restoration were submitted in 1998. But those markets are the only ones that remain from that time. The rest failed because they weren't in dense enough areas, or didn't take into account the shopping habits of nearby residents, Wilson says. (A market geared toward a workplace crowd, like the Ferry Building or The Hall, should focus on cafe food; one geared toward a more residential crowd, like Rockridge Market or Mission Bay's Market Hall, should focus on grab-and-go and selling ingredients for cooking.)

Now we're in a second boom, and judging by the sheer number of markets going in around the country, this one is more likely to stick. Market halls are opening in New York (Eataly, Gotham Market, Hudson Eats, Berg'n), Los Angeles (Grand Central Market just got a revamp), Seattle (Melrose Market), Denver (The Source), Philadelphia (Reading Terminal Market), Washington, D.C. (Union Hall), Atlanta (Krog Street Market), Chicago (French Market, Block 37, a second Eataly), and more. Anthony Bourdain, the coolest kid in the cafeteria, plans to open a market hall with 40 to 50 vendors in New York City next year. Pretty soon they will be as ubiquitous as food trucks.

Market halls have a lot of potential, but they aren't necessarily right for all small businesses, warns Caleb Zigas, head of low-income-business incubator La Cocina. First, because most of these spaces only offer vendors a stand, they don't have the kitchen space or storage for a proper restaurant. That works for people like John Fink of the Whole Beast, who already have a robust catering business and a commercial kitchen to go with it (he does most of his prep, like making stocks and pickles, at his commissary kitchen), but not everyone is that lucky or well-established. "It doesn't make sense for micro-entrepreneurs to have to rent one space to produce and another to sell," writes Zigas in an email.

These market stalls require less startup capital than a food truck, but they also require vendors to be tethered to one location. And then there's the fact that they're competing with all the other businesses in the market for customers. "There's a real fear that we have internally about the quantity of competition and replication that I expect you will see in market halls soon enough," Zigas writes. "Will [people] spend enough on every ticket to have it make sense for the individual stalls?" They should if there's the right mix of vendors. The success and failure of these new halls, then, may have less to do with location and more to do with the vision of the market's curator. It could also be affected by who, exactly, these markets are for.

Proprietors of these food court-ish markets such as The Hall, 331 Cortland, Second Act Marketplace, and the name-TBD place in the Castro have designed their spaces for their vendors, and make money by charging rent, taking a cut of total proceeds, or both. This model works to help strengthen the brands of these smaller businesses, but it can also be a headache to manage and maintain quality control. That's why there's another, similar-but-different model emerging: the restaurant-in-grocery-store, championed by Whole Foods and Mario Batali's Eataly in New York, where all the different food stations are owned by the same executive chef and run out of a central kitchen. They're still offering the diner more options than a restaurant, but in a more streamlined way. And while these markets are ostensibly for the community at large, they will likely benefit the residents of the new condos above and around them the most.

The way Americans are dining out is changing. Prepared foods is the fastest-growing section of the grocery store, a sector that has grown 30 percent since 2008 and is expected to grow 10 percent more in the next 10 years, as opposed to the restaurant sector's measly 4 percent, according to Chicago-based research firm NPD Group. "Consumers are looking for convenient meal solutions and they don't necessarily want to cook," says Bonnie Riggs, NPD's food service analyst. "The prepared food being offered by these retailers is fresh, it's higher quality, there's variety, and it's very reasonable and affordable — more so than going to a restaurant."

This trend is what Chris Foley is banking on in the market hall he's building at 1355 Market, aka the "Twitter Building." The real estate investor, who has previous grocery experience as part-owner of the Canyon Market in Glen Park, is building a 22,000-square-foot grocery store and restaurant for the thousands of people who are estimated to live and work in mid-Market in the coming years. Market on Market will have some retail, but it will mostly be a place for people to gather at the sushi bar, the taco bar, the pizza bar, the wine and charcuterie bar, or the Malaysian noodle bar.

Though Foley and his team control the operations and the kitchen, he has hired small businesses from the community to join them. The sushi bar will be run by sushi chef Maka Sasaki, formerly of the Michelin-starred Maruya, for whom Foley is also building a small restaurant on Polk. Malaysian noodles will come from Azalina Eusope, an alum of incubator kitchen La Cocina. Like The Hall, he'll also have a few spots for small businesses looking to grow.

Market on Market will open in early December, but Foley is betting on its success: He's already signed a lease for a second market on Polk Street and a third in SOMA.

He'll have competition from restauranteur Tony Riviera, who is building his new Market Hall in the ground floor of the new Channel Mission Bay condo development. (You will have noticed by now that many of these spots have similar names — Market Hall, Market on Market, The Hall. In the same way that birds, bugs, and bats all developed wings separately but to serve the same purpose, these names, and the concepts behind them, all evolved from different origins toward a surprisingly similar endpoint. As such, their owners were often only vaguely aware of developments happening elsewhere.)

Market Hall will have local groceries as well as a "huge" prepared food section, an oyster bar, a wood-fired pizza oven, and a full-service restaurant — Riviera says that he knows the new condo dwellers will be his main customer base. "You walk into Whole Foods at 5, 6, 7 o'clock, you're not seeing people in the middle aisles anymore. People come into the market hall to get fresh soup that's made for them on a daily basis and pay very little attention to the other stuff," he says. Rivera is testing his idea here, but also plans to open more markets in Seattle, San Diego, and Dallas.

Whole Foods and others like it may be proof of concept, but the most successful and visionary extension of this form of food hall is Eataly, Mario Batali's massive Italian food hall in midtown Manhattan, which opened a second location in Chicago earlier this year. It has a half-dozen restaurants, wine bars, and a rooftop beer garden along with a prodigious Italian grocery section. Eataly is an experience, and an education in Italian food that just happens to also sell groceries. Many cite Batali and his creation as a model for their markets, but none have taken it to heart as much as chef/restauranteur George Chen, who is building a giant and ambitious Chinese market hall at Broadway and Grant in Chinatown.

Chen has long been a staple on the San Francisco restaurant circuit, having cooked his way through influential S.F. Chinese restaurants like the Mandarin before opening Betelnut in Cow Hollow. He's spent most of the past decade in China tending to restaurants he owns there, and noticed the huge discrepancy between the quality of Chinese food in America and Chinese food in China.

"We're trying to demystify, educate, and show people what seasonal, ingredient-driven Chinese food can be," he says. "The cuisine has really gone farm-to-table."

His new place, the nearly 30,000-square-foot China Live set to open in April 2015, will be an immersive experience showcasing Chinese food. One half of the ground floor will have a retail section with imported, hard-to-find ingredients like Sichuan peppercorns and variations on soy sauce; the other side will have a cafe offering everything from panfried soup dumplings to roasted duck to noodles. The second floor will have a bar and upscale restaurant, and as at Eataly, there will be a rooftop bar.

Like the rest of these developers, Chen is looking at the neighborhood's future instead of its present: With the repaving of Broadway, the opening of the Chinatown Central Subway, and the construction of more condos, the area will likely look significantly different in a few years. And if it's a success, China Live will be part of the neighborhood's transition, a destination not only for its new neighbors but for anyone with an interest in Chinese food, local or tourist alike.

A few weeks back, a tech dude published some thoughts on the internet and in the process exemplified people's worst fears about the cluelessness of life in the bubble. In the tech industry blog The Information, former Facebook VP of product management Sam Lessin wrote a nostalgic post about how much he missed the cushy, coddled life of the Facebook campus. The real world, he was finding, was taking up a lot more time and energy.

"At Facebook, my meetings, the gym and food were all within a one or two minute walk," he wrote. "Now, my gym is a few minutes ride away from where I am working. Food requires leaving a building. These little bits of friction add up quickly."

His article was quickly and mercilessly mocked by sites like Valleywag, where it was seen as a parable of how tone-deaf and out of the loop living in the tech world can make you — especially if you were recruited in college and simply graduated from one campus to another. Amenities like free lunch are now the norm at many large companies in the city, and businesses like Off the Grid and Zero Cater mobilize small food vendors to feed the masses when companies don't have on-site kitchens. Off the Grid owner Matt Cohen says that two-thirds of his company's business — which organizes food trucks to appear at public and private gatherings — comes from corporate catering.

As the city becomes more dense, with ever-taller condo towers that could stretch the downtown skyline into Mission Bay, and more of a company town, as tech companies prove that they're more than a glimmer in a venture capitalist's eye, it seems logical that these new developments will try to re-create the kind of lifestyle that these companies provide. That's one of the factors that Foley of Market on Market hopes will bolster his businesses, which are going into transitional neighborhoods like mid-Market. "Homes are getting smaller because really the neighborhood is the amenity, not the apartment," he says. "It's all Millennials and common space."

In this sense, the market halls represent some of San Francisco's worst fears about itself: that this newfound density and influx of young tech workers contributing to it will somehow change S.F. into a giant college or tech company campus rather than a complex, unpredictable, freak-embracing city. That tech and corporate interests will close the city in, create enclaves that are the urban version of gated communities — or worse, they'll transform S.F. into one giant, sanitized mall. It's temping to look at Foley and his developer peers as unabashed capitalists making profit on the city at the price of its famously eclectic soul.

But the owners of these market halls are serious about embodying many values that the city holds dear. They put local, seasonal, sustainable food at the forefront of their ethos. They're acting as patrons, in a way, to culinary entrepreneurs. And through planned events, guest lectures, movie nights, cooking demonstrations, and other programming, they have the potential to bring neighborhoods together in a way that food halls have been doing for thousands of years.

The market halls might represent the most elegant function of the "sharing economy" we've seen yet: a way for people struggling in this increasingly expensive, increasingly crowded city to create a bit of room for themselves, and grow from there


About The Author

Anna Roth

Anna Roth

Anna Roth is SF Weekly's former Food & Drink Editor and author of West Coast Road Eats: The Best Road Food From San Diego to the Canadian Border.

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