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The people's marketplace

Sept./Oct. 2007 California Country magazine

In food-crazy San Francisco, the Ferry Building Marketplace is one spot everyone can agree upon.



A rare--and vibrant--connection between city and country

San Francisco is renowned on many levels--for its world-class views, historic buildings, rich culture and, of course, its top-notch cuisine. But in the highly opinionated, food-crazed City by the Bay, there's one spot everyone can agree on--the Ferry Building Marketplace and its ever-popular farmers market.

Deemed the "people's marketplace," this one-stop source of all things delicious serves residents and tourists alike, all looking for a taste of the country in the city.

Shops large and small celebrate food in all its glorious forms inside the historic building--everything from oysters to hamburgers to artisan cheeses, breads and chocolates. In addition, restaurants and cafés offer up dishes that represent the quality and cultural diversity of San Francisco's best chefs. And on any given day, you'll find crowds meandering back and forth between indoor gourmet shops and outdoor sidewalk stalls.

"I absolutely love the variety of stuff they have here," gushed regular customer Beth Gordon. "Every week I get my favorites--Flavor Queen pluots, strawberry nectar peaches and black turnips. You can't find these things anywhere else, and I just think San Francisco is incredibly lucky to have a place like this."

But it wasn't always foodies that were attracted to this meal mecca. In the past, it was travelers. A century ago, the Ferry Building was just that--a ferry terminal for cross-country land and rail passengers. Its 240-foot-tall clock tower stood as a welcoming beacon to some 50,000 commuters a day at its peak.

Eventually the automobile replaced the ferry, and the building's mosaic floors and dramatic archways gave way to generic office space. Further casting the once-prominent structure into obscurity was the construction of the double-deck Embarcadero Freeway squarely across its face.


Inside the Ferry Building, which was once the transportation focal point of San Francisco, urban dwellers can grab a bite from the more than 30 artisans that currently call the building home.

And there it stood as an isolated monument to another era, until 1989 when extensive damage from the Loma Prieta earthquake provided the impetus to raze the Embarcadero Freeway. The Ferry Building and the central waterfront were once again visible and ready to embrace a bright future, and a massive design was begun to reintroduce the city to one of its most prized possessions--one that many residents didn't even know existed.

"The main idea behind the design was not to make this place look like a mall, but to make it about San Francisco," said Andrew Wolfram, lead architect for the redesign of the Ferry Building. "It would be about local producers, local food and the food of California. And so the idea really was to create a way for smaller vendors to sell or have a shop in the city, which normally they wouldn't."

Today the Ferry Building is home to a variety of Northern California's most popular eats. Taylor's Automatic Refresher, Acme Bread Co., Cowgirl Creamery, Prather Ranch Meats, McEvoy Ranch and Frog Hollow Farm are just a few of the places people can grab a bite to eat while enjoying breathtaking views of San Francisco.

And at the center of this grand place every Tuesday and Saturday is the famous Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. Depending on the time of year, the market hosts anywhere from 60 to 100 stalls, all filled to the brim with seasonal, fresh, locally grown produce. Each week more than 20,000 shoppers learn how their food is grown, who is growing it and why it tastes so good.


Locals and tourists alike can choose from hundreds of different types of seasonal produce at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, which is a productive one for small farm owners like Michelle Ross from Watsonville.

One of the market's most famous customers is Patricia Unterman, chef and owner of the famed Hayes Street Grill and a food critic for the San Francisco Examiner.

"I have lived in the Bay Area for more than 24 years now and I have never seen anything like this market," Unterman said. "The amount and variety of produce the farmers bring here is unbelievable. Before the market, we chefs would have to beg farmers to bring us different fruits and vegetables. But now the farmers and chefs have this amazing collaboration and many of the farmers are growing specifically what the restaurants need before they need it.

"I can't think of a better relationship between farm and city than this."

Jose Ortiz, chef at a café called Delica rf-1 that's located inside the Ferry Building, echoes Unterman's sentiments. With a relatively small eatery, Ortiz depends on the market to keep his menu fresh and competitive.


Chef Jose Ortiz is a regular at the market.

"I come here every week and buy at least four bags of lettuce each time. It helps me keep the menu very seasonal, which customers appreciate," Ortiz said.

The Ferry Plaza Farmers Market began in 1992 and within a short few years has became a crowd favorite. It's not difficult to see why.

The market is run by the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture, a nonprofit organization founded in 1994. Its main mission is to promote a sustainable food system through the operation of the farmers market and its educational programs. The programs focus on encouraging seasonal eating and cooking, explaining the concepts surrounding sustainable agriculture and the importance of supporting local growers. The organization sponsors farm tours, a weekly newsletter, lectures on food issues and a "market to table" event that features a farmer interview and cooking demonstration.

Dave Stockdale, the center's executive director, says that putting the farmers in touch with the urban consumers "enables them to earn a far greater share of the food dollar and often is the difference in their ability to stay in business."

One of those farmers is Michelle Ross, who along with her husband, Brandon, operates the Ella Bella Farm near Watsonville. Named after their daughter, the farm is relatively small, with only 17 acres of organic produce. With larger farms in the area, the family was unable to compete until they found a home--and gracious customers--at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.

"They're very respectful of what we do here," Ross said. "And it's very satisfying, especially when you're out on the farm for hours and wondering if it's all worthwhile. Then you come here and you get kudos from the great people here."

David Winsberg knows firsthand how important the market can be to a small farmer. He operates the Happy Quail Farms in Palo Alto, one of the last farms in the predominantly urban area.

"My father had a 300-acre farm in Florida. I have a 2-acre farm, so just to stay in business, markets like this one are vital," Winsberg said. "We do at least 70 percent of our business here and get a very good price here as well."

One reason Winsberg and others are able to receive premium prices is because of the level of food education among their customers.

"The folks here are so food savvy and smart," Winsberg said. "I try to bring all kinds of unusual produce to the market and they always buy it and ask questions on how to cook it."

Kong Moua, who grows a diverse selection of row crops at Chue Farms in Fresno, says traveling nearly 180 miles round trip every week is worth it, specifically because the customers at the Ferry Plaza eagerly embrace the unusual nature of his produce.

"When I first came here, people always asked, 'What is lemon grass? What is yuchoy? What is daikon?'" Moua said. "But they always bought it and came back for more. I think people here are more adventurous and willing to try unconventional fruits and vegetables and stuff that you might not see in the grocery stores."

So while a visitor to San Francisco might once have left his heart in the city, he can now leave with a stomach full of golden apricots from Ella Bella Farm, bok choy from Chue Farms and ginger blossoms from Happy Quail Farms--all thanks to a rare connection between city and country.

"I think this entire project--the building and the market--has enriched the whole food community of San Francisco and the Bay Area as a whole," Unterman said. "It truly is an amazing thing."

Celebrating food in all its glorious forms

A farmer and a customer trade anecdotes about their families. A businesswoman juggles a briefcase with a bag of vegetables and an armload of flowers. A chef fills her convertible with edible inspiration for the evening's menu.

Welcome to San Francisco's Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, a crucial link between local farmers and the people who depend on--and delight in--California's fresh, seasonal bounty.

The market is held two days a week--Tuesdays and Saturdays--at the historic Ferry Building overlooking the San Francisco Bay. Offerings range from fragrant herbs, plump oysters and artisan cheeses to grass-fed beef, gourmet chocolates and produce of all kinds.

For more information: www.cuesa.org or (415) 291-3276.

Tracy Sellers is a reporter for the California Farm Bureau Federation and the popular weekly television program "California Country." She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or tsellers@cfbf.com.


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