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Once upon a time—last week, in fact—the inaugural D.C. Grey Farmers Market was to be held at an undisclosed location in Petworth.
To skirt the law, would-be attendees had to subscribe to a newsletter that would alert them via e-mail where they should go on Sunday, Jan. 30. Because the Grey Market would be hosted in a location without proper permitting from the District Department of Transportation or the Department of Parks and Recreation, and its proprietor did not possess a business license—currently, the only requirements to host a farmers’ market—the guest list was a necessity.
The Grey Market was taking its cues from the concept of a gray, or parallel, economy. (The alternative spelling is to clearly differentiate between the market and Mayor Vince Gray.) Gray economies are all over the place. One of the more common examples is the resale of cellphones, like iPhones, in countries where they aren’t on the market to begin with. Yard sales and even lemonade stands, where the proprietor has not been issued the proper permitting and licensing, would also fall into the not-illegal-but-not-quite-kosher nature of a gray market.
Late Monday night, though, the promised e-mail arrived—with news that the site of the Grey Market will be Kushi, a Japanese restaurant in Mount Vernon Triangle’s City Vista. But with the announcement that it would be held inside a venue possessing a proper certificate of occupancy, and a host of other D.C. licenses, the D.C. Grey Farmers’ Market suddenly became significantly less gray.
The point, initially, was to be subversive. Maya Robinson, a D.C. native who spends her nine-to-five as an accountant, is the organizer behind the Grey Farmers’ Market. She took inspiration from a similar operation that sprung up in San Francisco in 2009. For Robinson, the idea is aligned with the politics of the slow-food movement. “It’s grown out of the movement to eat locally and I want to be able to support the local D.C. vendors,” she says. “I don’t think that there’s enough of that in D.C. It’s starting, but…I went to a local grocery store, a big organic one I’m not going to name, and they had this big thing about local eggs, but they were from Pennsylvania, and that’s not local. I know people in Maryland who sell eggs.”
While the emphasis on local vendors is respectable, it’s certainly not radical: In their 2011-2012 market rules, FreshFarm—the largest farmers market operator in the region—requests that “all farmers/growers and producers must be from the Chesapeake Bay watershed region…and preferably within a 200-mile radius of Washington, D.C.” A quick look at the vendor requirements of other D.C. farmers markets—Bloomingdale, Mount Pleasant, Petworth—indicate that their rules for locally-grown food are similar, if not identical, to FreshFarm’s.
Still, the keep-it-local sentiment resonated with Darren Norris, owner and executive chef at Kushi. Norris attended culinary school in San Francisco and has since kept up with the gastronomic scene there. When a friend, Ali Bagheri of Seasonal Pantry (who will also set up a booth on Sunday), told him about D.C.’s own parallel market, Norris was immediately interested. “We like what it stands for: Bringing non-commercially processed foods to the masses and getting more of a grassroots involvement in a farm-to-table type of mentality,” he says. Norris offered to host the market in his restaurant to give it some additional space.
Kushi’s hosting of the market has also granted it all the legitimacy it needs. “There’s an exemption in the licensing law that has always allowed farmers to bring their goods into the city without the need for a license,” says Sam Williams, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs’ special events and vending coordinator. As far as the city goes, Kushi’s occupancy certificate is all the market needed, but Williams acknowledges that markets may have their own set of rules, such as requiring their vendors to prepare their food in a commercially-licensed kitchen.
Nonetheless, this means that the onus is on the operators of farmers’ markets, not their vendors, to be legally certified. “The only regulations needed for a farmers’ market is that the person that operates the market needs to be licensed to do business in the District,” says Kristin Roberts, community nutrition associate at D.C. Hunger Solutions. “Non-profits need to be certified non-profits. Then, they’ll need a permit for whatever kind of space they’ll be in. Private spaces need a certificate of occupancy; if Kushi has its own CFO, they shouldn’t need any kind of permit to be in that space.”
Says Roberts, “It’s operating pretty much in sync with any other farmers’ market. I’d call it completely legal.”
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So what makes it gray? Though the Grey Market has emerged into the sunlight, it’s still providing a significant service to some of its vendors by not requiring them to pay fees or prepare their products in a commercially-licensed kitchen. Of the 11 vendors signed up for Sunday’s market, seven would be unable to join FreshFarm or other traditional farmers’ markets, either because they can’t afford to pay the associated fees or don’t have the extra permits those markets require.
Let’s say you’re a baker looking to sign on with a farmers’ market in the District. In itself, that’s not terribly difficult: You would only need to provide a certificate for an approved baking facility and pay the stated vendor’s fees. But to be an approved baking facility, you need a licensed commercial kitchen. A licensed commercial kitchen requires, among other things, compliance with zoning (demonstrated with a certificate of occupancy or home occupancy for compliance), corporate registration, a basic business license, and an inspection by the Department of Health.
Similar red tape is required of cheese makers, pasta makers, soap makers, meat producers, and fishermen. Then, there’s the application and vending fees, which vary market to market. The Petworth market charges $300 for a seasonal booth and $20 for a weekly booth, while FreshFarm requires that its vendors be insured against liability for up to $500,000 and bases fees on a percentage of total gross sales.
Patrick Cherry bakes desserts in his personal kitchen near H Street NE under a venture called Gourmet Cherry; he will be selling his products on Sunday. Cherry’s business is in the embryonic stage: He’s always had a love for pastry-making, but only recently began to sell his bread pudding through word of mouth. He doesn’t yet have a commercial kitchen or the kind of financial capital to pay significant fees, which leaves him out of the running for most farmers’ markets. Regardless, he hopes to be able to do so-—once his business grows a little more. “My overall goal is to become a licensed vendor. I take what I do very seriously,” he says. “What the [Grey Market] does is allow me to participate without taking on the financial burden.” CP
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Illustration by Brooke Hatfield/Photo by Darrow Montgomery