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

Tuesday, Oct 28 2014
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"[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.

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About The Author

Anna Roth

Anna Roth

Bio:
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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