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The Market Gatekeepers

Sara Deseran | December 12, 2012 | Food & Drink Story Eat and Drink

AT THIS POINT IN ITS 20-YEAR HISTORY, the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market is about as pastoral as a pair of Louboutins. Its farmers are name-dropped on San Francisco’s best menus, and its restaurant vendors are lauded everywhere from the New York Times to Bon App├ętit. Every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, this exclusive group of 125 sellers gathers on the Embarcadero to offer juried edibles to upwards of 25,000 people. The sellers here inform what the Bay Area is craving, all the way down to that rare heirloom beet.

Which is why every farmer and restaurant owner worth his or her sea salt wants to have a stand at this market. But, barring retirement or death, the vendors here don’t tend to leave. Each year, approximately 500 applications are submitted to Lulu Meyer and Dexter Carmichael—the market’s associate director of operations and director of operations, respectively. The list of applicants who meet their standards (farmers, for example, must prove that their practices are environmentally sound, their animal management is humane, and their business is economically viable and socially just) is 50 deep. The number of spaces available? Zero.

At any other market, Meyer and Carmichael would toil away in relative obscurity, but here, the two wield something almighty. “When I see a restaurant with a Sysco truck parked out front, then [that applicant] goes into the no pile,” says Meyer. One that did make the yes pile last fall is Wise Sons, the hip Jewish deli. “We found a way to make that work,” says Meyer, who squeezed them into the Tuesday market. “I love Jewish deli food. There’s not enough in the city.”

What are Meyer and Carmichael looking for right now? “When I first started here, it was crepes,” says Meyer of a fad that is dead. And don’t even try to win her over with kettle corn. (“It’s got that sickeningly sweet smell,” she says, visibly grossed out.) There is hope, though, if you happen to be planting a lot of Japanese eggplant: Meyer, as it turns out, says that she is currently looking for organic Asian vegetables. Next year, when you can finally get enough of that biodynamically farmed gai lan, you’ll know whom to thank.

Originally published in the December 2012 issue of San Francisco.

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