Know Before You Go: Ferry Plaza Farmers Market

Now that that the spring weather is here, baseball season has begun and the market is full of spring produce, the Saturday Ferry Plaza Farmers Market is getting crowded again. Some people come to the market to do all their grocery shopping, while others are there to pick up picnic supplies or to get breakfast or lunch from the prepared food stands. The market is also a common tourist destination — and for good reason: it’s a great place to see the incredible variety of food that is grown or produced in (primarily) Northern California.

For this particular farmers market, there are a few things that can really improve your experience. Aside from the usual things like bringing cash (and not $100 bills!) and hitting an ATM before you get to the market (the ones in the Ferry Building often have long lines), there are some things you should know before you go, such as:

1. Bring Your Own Bags
Unlike many markets, you won’t find plastic bags given out at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. The FPFM went bag-free (at least plastic bag free) in May 2009. So now some stands have no bags, while others may offer either small paper bags (without handles) or relatively flimsy biodegradable bags — usually for a fee.  So bring your own bags (you’ll pass as a market regular even if you’re just visiting) or come to the market prepared to purchase bags from the stands or at the information booth.

2. Samples Aren’t A Guarantee
Don’t come to the market expecting free food. Some stands offer samples but not all do. One reason for this is that the SF Health Department has strict rules on samples (pdf file), such as that samples are supposed to be in “approved, clean covered containers,” anyone distributing samples is supposed to wear disposable plastic gloves, and you’re also supposed to have “clean water, soap and sanitizer available” to wash utensils and hands.

Many stands aren’t able comply with these rules, so they don’t offer samples (or at least don’t readily offer samples). So don’t get upset if there aren’t samples available at every stand or if you aren’t automatically offered a taste. You can always buy something if you want to try it, or move on and find another stand that is offering samples.

3. ‘Heirloom’ means Delicious
Come ready to try foods that may be unfamiliar to you. Farmers markets are a good place to find ‘heirloom’ fruits, vegetables, and even meats for sale. Heirloom varietals aren’t generally grown commercially because they often aren’t easy to mass-produce, but some shoppers find it disconcerting to be faced with unfamiliar foods.

Try to remember that heirloom = delicious. Take a chance on an heirloom variety and see what you think.

Try a cara cara orange in the winter, or a black cherokee tomato in the summer. If you’re lucky enough to visit the market in the fall, apples are one of the cheapest and, in my opinion, one of the most rewarding heirloom options.

4. Watch Your Step!
There’s so much to take in at the market, especially in the back of the Ferry Building where aside from all the eye-catching produce, you get a view of the Bay and the Bay Bridge and where many people hang out. But do watch your step as you wander through the market. There’s some uneven ground and curbs and it’s easy to trip over a vendor’s tents or umbrellas. I’ve seen some epic falls over the years by both regulars and tourists alike and it’s not pretty. There has been blood.

5. Chefs Carts
The people pushing carts piled high with boxes of produce through the market are not traveling produce sellers. In most cases, they are chefs who are shopping for their respective restaurants. You shouldn’t sample from these carts or take produce from them. Going to the market is not like going out to dim sum. You go to the stands to buy what you need; it doesn’t come to you. (It had never occurred to me that this would be a problem until today when I saw a woman start to remove a basket of strawberries from the two-flats of strawberries atop a chef’s cart. While the chef was polite, the look of disbelief on his face was priceless.)


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