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All You Can Eat

Trend-setting restaurants, Northwest cookbooks, local food news and the people who make them happen.

September 28, 2012 at 12:30 PM

Underground food market starts up in Seattle

sabich.jpg

Think of the Bite of Seattle, but with food vendors you’ve probably never heard of before, distinctly non-corporate leadership, a great mix of tastes and talents, and an indoor location you’ll only hear about if you sign up in advance. (Oh — and you’ll have to sign a waiver that you understand you’re eating products “that may have been produced in a space not inspected by the health department.”)

That’s the idea behind the Seattle Underground Market planned for Saturday (Sept. 29). Sign up here and you’ll get an email tonight with the event’s location. If you go, you’ll pay $5 at the door, then pay $1 to $5 apiece for nibbles from vendors including Michael Natkin of Herbivoracious (he’ll be serving Sabich, an Iraqi-Israeli eggplant sandwich), gourmet cake pops from One Wild Strawberry, plus barbecue from an Arkansas-born caterer, gumbo from a Creole caterer, Southeast Asian comfort food from vendors who began “after throwing a few Thai and Vietnamese focused dinner parties,” and a long list of other caterers, home cooks, private chefs, and others interested in bringing their food to a wider audience or trying out a new business.

The organizer is Michaela Graham, who founded a similar market in Atlanta. Such markets have popped up in cities around the country — the New York Times calls them “food raves.”

“It’s really about supporting local food talent, people that are following their dreams and trying to make something happen,” Graham said.

Is it legal? Well, in the same sort of iffy way as the “underground restaurants” popular a few years back. Technically, yes, private clubs are exempt from the state food code that requires health department permits, said Hilary Karasz of Public Health – Seattle & King County. “However, if the club is essentially open to the public, even if a small cover charge is required, then it may be “private” in name only,” she said.

Getting into the nitty gritty, “it’s an interesting one,” said Mark Rowe, manager of the food protection program for the health department. From the limited information he’s gathered from the website and “the chatter out there,” the market doesn’t appear to be a truly private event — “if for no other reason than that there’s an exchange of compensation there,” which the code’s definition of private events doesn’t allow. Determining its legality for sure would mean sending someone to take a look at it, which is “pretty likely” to occur.

It’s possible the organizers could get a temporary event permit even if the market’s dubbed a public event — but that gets a lot more complicated.

In Atlanta, Graham’s monthly underground market was successful to the point of having lines stretching around the block, according to news accounts at the time. She turned it into a weekly public event, which was less successful and shut down — complicated, she said, by an attendee who claimed to have gotten sick. (It sounds complicated in general, if you read the story and long string of comments here.)

Graham said she’s got insurance, security, recycling and composting for the Seattle event, which she hopes to hold in rotating locations around town each month. In Atlanta, venues ranged from warehouses to unfinished retail spaces to an old mill. “You have to have enough parking that’s not $10, you have to have at least 10,000 square feet,” but she never found it difficult to find a host, she said. “After the first one most of the venues came up to me,” she said, attracted by the coolness factor.

I asked why she would want to start up another market after what sounded like a grueling experience in Atlanta.

“Ultimately, it’s a lot of fun when it works,” she said. You get to see the excitement of people starting out new ventures, and to taste a lot of food.

She became interested in the idea when she was eating a vegan diet and living in San Francisco, checking out its underground market. “I had so much fun going to all these and tasting all these different foods that maybe I wouldn’t have eaten (otherwise),” she said.

Any other advice? Bring cash. While she can’t say where it is yet, she did say there’s not an ATM nearby.

I’d been wondering why Seattle didn’t have its own underground market, but in the never-rains-but-it-pours department learned that in addition to Graham’s project this weekend, there’s an entirely different sort of event from different organizers (this one will be officially permitted), currently planned for mid-October. More on that one as details firm up, but you can check them out here.

Photo of Sabich courtesy of the multitalented Michael Natkin of Herbivoracious

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