Bonnie Tsui is a contributing writer to CityLab. She writes frequently for The New York Times and is the author of American Chinatown: A People's History of Five Neighborhoods.
Everything San Francisco's Local Mission Market offers, unless it's raw, will be made in-house.
Yaron Milgrom owns two restaurants in San Francisco's Mission District: Local Mission Eatery, a restaurant, bakery, and cookbook library that serves as gourmet sandwich shop by day and intimate dinner spot by night, and Local's Corner, a seafood-centric neighborhood cafe that's Michelin-approved. Now, he's about to turn the idea of an urban neighborhood grocery on its head with the soon-to-open Local Mission Market, in which everything, unless it's raw, will be made in-house.
Yes, really. I consider my current shopping list for pasta puttanesca, and Milgrom answers back: house-made pickles, olives, cured fish and meat, pastas, and cheese are all available.
He wants to make high-quality, made-from-scratch food available to everyone, and to take away the intimidation factor. "Generally, the most convenient food is the worst food," he tells me. "We wanted to make the best food the most convenient food, because they almost never overlap."
The best food also usually means higher prices. But Milgrom insists that his new one-stop market will have prices that undermine or are at minimum competitive with other stores in the area. Part of what he says makes this possible is the elimination of the waste stream—while most grocery stores throw away 15 to 20 percent of their produce (once it starts looking piqued or bruised, no one wants to buy it), the new retail shop will double as an augmentation to the restaurant arm of Local's business. Milgrom says his restaurant staff will be able to use every bit of extra the food they procure, thanks to the talents of chef and partner Jake des Voignes, whose skills include butchery, pickling, canning, and jamming. (A sampling of products and their prices: dried spaghetti, $4 a pound; salad greens, $1.50 for 5 oz.; apples, from $1.25 a pound; a dozen eggs, $4.50; house-baked loaf of bread, $6).
"People with a range of incomes should be able to shop here," Milgrom says. "If you come here, you can shop affordably: talk with the butcher, talk with the staff, and see what great food you can make for less." That's the advantage, he claims, of still having a storefront.
The idea for the market came from permitting issues that arose with the original restaurant. One permit quirk required them to make everything in-house. "I really liked that idea, of having a retail space in which everything is made by us," he says, and he filed it away in the back of his mind. The details of the retail market come from "Sunday supper" brainstorming sessions he held with friends and neighbors about what an ideal 21st-century corner grocery could offer: pre-ordering via text message for quick pick-up (there's a dedicated pick-up window and five-minute parking), mobile checkout scanners, produce scales outfitted with iPads and a customized app that gives info on where a product is from and who grows it. All because, as Milgrom says, "we had to have our small, independent market be as convenient as Whole Foods."
The new market's physical space was also born of the community. One day, when he was out walking with his son, he ran into a customer who had just bought a building nearby, with 70 feet of storefront (the two-time factory—horseshoes, then tobacco—had been largely vacant for 20 years). The condo-plus-retail building fits right into the light industrial mix in this part of the Mission, where Timbuk2, Heath Ceramics, Western Plywood, art studios, tech and design offices, affordable housing, and shiny condos all jostle up against one another.
Vintage wooden farm crates showcase produce, and a sign by the front door tells shoppers what's in peak season, and what’s coming soon. Recipes and videos will be featured online, to help those short on time. "If you have the time, we'll have chicken carcasses for you to make chicken stock for your risotto," Milgrom says. "But we’ll also have the chicken stock. And sometimes we’ll have the risotto, in prepared foods. However you want to approach it, as a from-scratch cook or everything has to be ready to go, we should be able to deliver."
Milgrom acknowledges the challenges of doing a labor-heavy local market in this way, and of trying to change the way people buy and eat food. But he describes his mission by paraphrasing Umberto Eco, who wrote of creating the "ideal reader," reading being a social act that a literary text should anticipate and try to create: "With this market, we’re trying to create the ideal shopper."