DC Grey Market: An underground opportunity for vendors


Scott McIntosh cooks spicy pork sausage for his booth called 13 Street Meats at the DC Grey Market that was being held at the parking lot used for the Liberty North Community Market on Sunday July 17, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Matt McClain/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
August 2, 2011

At one corner of the market, Marshall Stowell and Chris Hobbs were hawking Senora Hobbs’s Kick Ass Salsa, a zippy condiment starring grilled peaches, pineapples and peppers. Latin flair decked the senora’s small table, a princess pinata hung in the corner of the tent, and a colorful business card summed up the persona of the Latin lady fighter-slash-cook, “a tough cholita” known in the ring and the kitchen “for her intuition and her flying kicks.”

Stowell and Hobbs work in communications and philanthropy, respectively. Their catchy marketing had taken several weeks of “goofing around” to develop, according to Stowell, and was a fun way of seeing what it might be like to open a taqueria — though that’s a pipe dream.

At the market’s opposite end, Julien Shapiro was dishing up his own sultry delectables: sockeye salmon smoked with fennel seed; pate en croute; and leafy-greens sausages, a southern-French specialty made with pork, turnip and mustard greens, and kale. Vending under a “Worthwhile Meats & Provisions” banner imprinted with fleurs de lys and a stately font, Shapiro had laid his table with country cutlery and a photo album full of culinary experiments clearly rooted in classical training.

A sous-chef at the revered Palena restaurant, Shapiro keeps a methodical blog about recipe testing called Kitsch & Classics and will soon depart for a month-long spell of culinary apprenticeships in France. Acquiring a storefront in the District for a French-style prepared-foods shop is the next step in his life’s work.

Such culinary cross-section comes by design at the new DC Grey Market.

Maya Robinson, 28, founded the market in January to give fledgling food entrepreneurs a stage, and a taste for the many ingredients required to incorporate a business. From a consumer’s standpoint, there’s a catch. You could call it gray, Robinson said, “because I don’t ask people where they make their food.”

Shapiro worked up his wares between midnight and 3 a.m. in his Columbia Heights basement apartment. And that sassy senora? She — that is, Stowell and Hobbs — cranked out batches in Hobbs’s Petworth back yard and kitchen.

Like many of the vendors at the market, not to mention at similar underground markets popping up around the country, none of the three men had acquired business licenses or submitted to food-safety inspections.

Shapiro said the market’s lack of a licensing requirement was a big draw for him. “Everything I have here is totally safe,” he said. “My kitchen is invariably cleaner than most restaurant kitchens.”

That the sales technically are not regulated seems only to heighten the allure. New vendors have enlisted for each of the three DC Grey markets held to date. Attendance has ranged from 355 to 1,100.

Robinson, a tax preparer, says she learned about food production by working on an organic produce farm in New Zealand for more than a month last year. “I didn’t like it. I thought: I never want to do this again,” she said. But after hearing about a popular San Francisco underground market full of unlicensed food start-ups, Robinson said, she decided the idea was perfect for Washington, where high rents and hard-to-find commercial kitchens can hinder would-be cooks looking to sell handmade goods.

A woman in Atlanta launched a similar market there this year. And others are getting underway in places such as Dearborn, Mich., and Toronto.

The growing popularity of these markets has some public-health officials on guard. Last summer, the organizer of the Greenpoint Food Market shuttered the Brooklyn bazaar after attracting the attention of New York City’s food inspectors. In June this year, the San Francisco Department of Health ordered that city’s underground market to halt all activity.

Iso Rabins, the San Francisco market’s founder, said two city officials appeared at the first event, which was held in a private home in December 2009. He thought they would shoo away everyone and shut him down. Instead, Rabins said, “they were actually surprisingly supportive and told me it couldn’t be run the way it was, but it could be a members-only event.” Rabins set up a “private club” structure in which “members” could sign up in advance online and then pay a small entry fee at the door.

All was well for a time. The market eventually expanded to encompass day and evening events, with attendance peaking at 3,200 people. But Rabins also loosened the entrance policy, allowing people to sign up at the door. “It was essentially open to the public,” as he put it.

Rabins said his attorneys are now negotiating with the health department. He hopes to reopen the market by fall. The department’s concern “is public health, and that’s a concern of mine, too, definitely,” Rabins said. “I think there are ways that we can, if not work together, then coexist.”

Other underground organizers have essentially crossed their fingers and adopted members-only entrance policies without consulting their respective authorities, and are taking other steps to dodge unwanted attention. In Atlanta, for example, organizer Michaela Graham said she broadcasts the event’s location only on the eve of the market: “It keeps the authorities away if nobody knows till after the [city] office is closed.”

Here in the District, Robinson has put the kibosh on selling raw-milk products, for one thing. And she said that apart from the popular booze-infused cupcakes sold by Crunkcakes, she has turned down requests to sell alcohol-based products: “That’s a whole different set of laws that I have no desire to wrestle with.”

She is also trying out different venues. The first DC Grey Market took place at a Japanese restaurant in the District. More than 300 people crammed into the restaurant to shop an array of provisions that included sweet potato butter, kombucha (the fermented tea) and grass-fed, dry-aged beef.

At the second market, in May, 25 vendors took over the rooftop bar and patio at Local 16, a restaurant on U Street. Spokeswoman Stacey Price said that the business realized its sponsorship was risky — someone might have gotten sick from a market product — but that customers had to sign a waiver relieving Local 16 of liability. The event got potential new customers in the door, Price said, and Local 16’s operators loved the idea of supporting small-scale artisans.

Robinson held the July market in a parking lot at Fifth and I streets Northwest. Ken Acclar, who has organized a bazaar in that space since the spring, said he leases the property from the District and has “everything the city required” to sell food on the lot, though he declined to be specific.

But Robert Sudler, program manager of the food-safety division in the D.C. Department of Health, said any sale of food prepared outside a licensed and inspected commercial kitchen — no matter where the sale takes place — is illegal. Would-be entrepreneurs wanting to lawfully sell home-prepared food would have to get “their personal home and kitchen zoned as a commercial kitchen,” Sudler said. Though some have inquired about the process, Sudler said, it is rare that anyone proceeds because of the significant expense of installing restaurant-grade equipment.

Sudler said his office has not received complaints about Robinson’s market. Neither has the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which issues business licenses.

As any entrepreneur knows, start-up costs for licenses, legal fees and marketing materials can accumulate quickly. Would-be food producers face other hurdles, such as access to that crucial commercial kitchen space. Open Kitchen in Falls Church and Food Chain in Petworth, two ventures that focus on renting out their industrial kitchens to small-scale cooks, offer hourly time shares. Some churches and eateries are also willing to strike informal deals. But many fledgling entrepreneurs find the $30-to-$110 hourly rents too steep.

Food-handling laws also limit the allowable places for testing edibles with audiences that don’t include family and friends. Some aspiring producers look to farmers markets as a first step, only to learn that there, too, food must be prepped in a commercial kitchen, insurance is required and booth fees can be prohibitive. To sell at the area’s FreshFarm Markets, for example, prepared-food vendors must turn over 6 percent of gross receipts and carry at least $500,000 in liability insurance.

Grey DC is super low-maintenance, by contrast. Robinson charges a booth fee of $40. Customers pay $2 at the door.

Dan O’Brien, formerly a sous-chef at Bibiana and now the owner of the newly opened Seasonal Pantry in Shaw, which carries his handmade provisions, said he did $700 in sales at the first DC Grey Market. The minimal costs were well worth it, he said, noting, “We haven’t rung up a$700 day at [Seasonal Pantry] yet.”

Like other underground ventures, DC Grey Market is a for-profit endeavor. Robinson said that as it grows, she hopes to offer grants for successful vendors who want to get business licenses. She does not jury the vendors; they simply have to meet her entry deadline. “What I’m hoping is that there’ll be high turnover, because that’s part of what makes it exciting,” she said. “You never know who’s going to be there, and it’s fun to try new food.”

Of course, as Robinson implies, a Grey Market experience could crush as many food dreams as it inspires. All that shopping and schlepping, not to mention the marketing — well, as Chris Hobbs, of Senora Hobbs’s Kick Ass Salsa, said, “It’s not as easy as it looks.”

The next market is slated for October. Sign up at www.greydc.com to receive periodic updates.

For more Food, http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food.

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