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Seattle Underground Market Organizer Blames Food Writers For Publicizing Her Event

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Photos: Ronal Holden

The story broke in Seattle Met over two weeks ago ("It's a secret") before it got picked up, Friday, by Rebekah Denn's All You Can Eat column in the Seattle Times: one Michaela Graham was bringing the concept of the "underground food market" to the Emerald City. You signed up online, per the instructions, and awaited an email announcing the location a day before the event.

Not, mind you, a Farmers Market, but a sort of food truck rodeo on training wheels: vendors without existing restaurants (or trucks or carts or even kitchens) who wanted to the public to taste their creations, from sabich (an Iraqi-Israel sandwich) to assorted empanadas to a "flaming hot" mango salad. Graham was inspried by a similar market in San Francisco, which in turn would have been inspired by the traditional night markets of Asia and Africa. As the website puts it, "The Seattle Underground Market is a venue for passionate food entrepreneurs to share their food creations with others and get valuable feedback, as well as the opportunity to build up their fan base. It's an incubator and food testing ground."

Graham's first venture was in Atlanta, where she would collect a $5 entry fee from patrons. At first, the event was a sort of "members only" affair, but Graham opened it up to the general public under the name Atlanta Nosh, then shut down after a patron claimed the food made her ill.

This weekend's event (at a warehouse in Redmond) was not, apparently, properly authorized. Simply calling an event a private function (even if patrons sign a waiver acknowledging that the food may not have been prepared in a licensed kitchen) doesn't eliminate the need to comply with the regulations; If admission is charged, and if food is for sale, it needs a permit. (In fact, food sold at public events must be prepared in commercial kitchens that have passed safety inspections.) The King County Public Health Department has a long check-list of requirements for temporary food-service establishments: triple sinks for dirty dishes, clean water for hand-washing sinks, thermometers to watch the temperature of food. The Health Department's inspectors are zealous in their enforcement of the rules, as many a neighborhood festival can report.

Graham told Eater Saturday that the adverse publicity resulting from Denn's article had cost her several vendors, not to mention inquiries from the Public Health inspectors. "Yes, I do expect they'll be coming around. But this was supposed to be an Underground event for members only."

There's nothing wrong with the concept, per se: most of the food items were new and different, a lot of vegans were particularly happy. The prevailing price point seemed to be very reasonable, $2 or $3 per serving. But it's pretty naive of the organizers to think that the Health Department doesn't read food blogs, and it's downright ludicrous for Graham to blame "food bloggers" for her troubles.

It's an argument that won't wash (as it were) with restaurant operators who fight a constant battle with the Health Department. Whether you call yourselves underground markets, pop-ups, food trucks, hot dog carts or whatever, you're on notice: if you sell food to the public, you need a permit.

There's actually another, different Seattle Underground Market, operated by an outfit called the Butter Conspiracy, getting ready to open (on the QT, of course), but they're actually in the process of getting a permit.

Some 20 vendors (out of the expected three dozen) showed up, as did perhaps 400 visitors. While Graham claims that the event was private, for members only, she sent out three emails in the 24 hours before the doors opened, and made no effort to check guests against a roster of people who might have replied to the emails.

The vendors, who paid $50 each, were not unhappy. Said one, Michael Natkin, author of the Herbivoraceous blog and cookbook, who sold 160 of his sabich sandwiches, "I thought it was very well run and a big success."

The best part: the Health Department didn't show up.

¸ All Hangover Observations Coverage on Eater Seattle [-ESEA-]

Ronald Holden