Underground market in San Francisco draws authorities’ notice

“If you have untrained vendors selling food to 1,200 people, you have a high-risk situation.”

So says Dr. Rajiv Bhatia, the director of environmental health for the San Francisco Department of Public Health.

The New York Times reports for the past two years, the San Francisco Underground Market has served up haute fringe food, but on June 11, the monthly market, which now draws more than a thousand visitors, received an unwelcome serving of its own: a cease and desist order from the San Francisco Department of Public Health.

The market had positioned itself as a members-only club to circumvent the department’s retail food-safety permitting process.

The market started small but has become a kind of foodie phenomenon. The idea has been to provide an incubator for the Bay Area’s fledgling food entrepreneurs, many of them young people who said they could not afford the steep fees of a conventional farmers’ market.

The department has not received complaints of illness, Dr. Bhatia said, but given the popularity of the market — arguably no longer “underground” — it now does not qualify as a club but is a retail food establishment under state law and subject to the standard permit process.

Iso Rabins, 30, the market’s founder, said Friday that he planned to meet with the city attorney to discuss how the market might be “legitimized,” possibly by establishing a communal commercial kitchen.

Ahram Kim, 35, whose culinary pièce de résistance is pork sausage topped with kimchi, has his own theory about the crackdown. “I immediately thought: ‘Of course. The state is broke,’ ” he said.