Last week, I was not surprised when I read John Birdsall’s S.F. Weekly post about Whole Foods’ planned development of a “street eats” line. While the Onion headline-ready notion of packed station wagons zipping over to America’s fastest-growing supermarket chain (on weekends, after the kids’ soccer games, before trips to the pool, perhaps) to savor authentic street-cart fare made me chuckle, the movement has boomed so rapidly and robustly — resonating from gastronomic hot-spots such as Portland and New York to smaller markets, leaping from local blogs to spreads in food magazines — it’s almost shocking it didn’t break sooner.
Definitions of street-food vary. To some, street-food is literally simply food you buy on the street to eat as you venture walk from one place to another, on foot or by bike. It is sold via cart, van, or basket. You find it steaming from wheeled cases under lamp-posts outside a favorite Mission District bar, wafting from a row of tents at Alemany Farmers’ Market, and hawked from busy Financial District corners. Convenience is at the heart of it. Whether you’re tucking into a pizza crisped in a customized Weber, scooping holes in a crème brûlée with a compostable spoon, or enjoying a bao in the park, you feel as if your food is coming to you. More accurately, it happens to be where you end up going. While the form has evolved to include dishes normally eaten on proper tables, street-food is usually portable, easy to hold, ideally with one hand, while in motion. You eat it the moment after you buy it, ideally immediately. Street-food is also a genre. Just as cart-pushers relish coming up with unlikely delicacies to squeeze into the street food idiom, expanding the realm of known possibilities, street food traditions from all over the world suddenly have a hold on the food-obsessed public’s heightened attention, and chefs are increasingly comfortable crediting, say, Burmese lettuce wraps, Indian puri, or salt-studded pretzels with influencing dishes served at their relatively expensive, artfully designed restaurants boasting public relations teams and Flash-heavy websites. When fancy food hits the streets, and quick bites head uptown, the translations swirl in both directions, potentially to the point of causing cacophony — over-priced white tablecloth tacos that don’t taste as good as they should, and gimmicky riffs on haute cuisine you’d just as soon feed to the bold, foraging pigeon sharing your bench. Still, there’s the one-year-old Street in Los Angeles, a stylish, hip restaurant celebrated for chef-owner (and long-time street-food advocate) Susan Feniger’s inspired riffs on global fast food traditions. The potential for gimmickry makes me cringe, but if the food is actually really good to eat, it’d be tough to judge it by any other criteria. In mining such traditions, restaurants are, in a sense, making a logical leap from cross-cultural comfort foods — menus inspired by what families eat together — to meals tired, drunk people eat alone, as fast as they can, before they pass out, dabs of hot sauce still smeared across their faces.
In taking stock of the street-food trend and seeking to integrate it into their 800-pound gorilla of a business model, Whole Foods is following the same logic, trying to reflect the culture it sees bubbling up with tasty, convenient products people will buy. Harvindar Singh, Whole Foods’ Northern California local foods “forager,” told Birdsall he was hoping to sell locally sourced street food from grab-and-go perishable fridge cases or as shelf-stable products in up to 30 stores across the region. Thus far, he’s reportedly met with Crème Brûlée Cart’s Curtis Kimball, his brother, Magic Curry Kart’s Brian Kimball, and Jon Kosorek of East Bay cart Jon’s Street Eats on the subject of a bottled salad dressing. As Birdsall notes, the vendors participating will need to make some adjustments to their wares:
“…[S]elling to Whole Foods means more than dropping off a few trays of crème brûlée at the loading dock. It means tweaking ― or substantially re-engineering ― products to meet the company’s guidelines for sourcing and packaging. ‘They have to feel ready and capable of doing this,’ Singh said of the vendors. ‘This is a whole new business for them. I’d want to make sure they have the volume and know how to do business at this level. It’s a partnership.’”
A Minyanville article published last Friday delves into some of the gritty details that partnership will entail, with Leslie Skarra, founder of a Minnesota-based product development and research firm, weighing to drop knowledge faster than a hand-scalding hot empanada:
“The first thing necessary to go from [a street cart] to the Whole Foods level is to convert the recipe to a formula…If you’ve been measuring ingredients by the cup, the large-scale producer will need the weights. Then, you need to define the process. Usually, there are things specific to a street vendor’s equipment, their environment, that make their products what they are. After that, there needs to be a process of investigation to make sure the original product can be reproduced accurately…[S]cientists will convert the ingredients in the formula into one that would be acceptable to Whole Foods from a sourcing standpoint, a quality standpoint, and work out the necessary scale of operations…What are the risks? Sometimes going from handmade to large scale changes things. This is where many people involved in this sort of translation can underestimate the problems in going from small and slow to bigger and faster. This is known in the industry as ‘scale up’, which is very important to get right, to maintain the integrity of the street food and the things that make it excellent to eat, a pleasurable experience, every time it’s consumed, to drive repeat consumption.”
I have included this whole beast of a quote because it sums up a lot of the issues at play better and no less succinctly than would my paraphrasing. The vendors and their loyal customers will have one major concern for sure — that the efforts required to Whole Foods-ify the products will strip away flavor and authenticity. Crafted on a larger scale, sold from case, not cart, might some of the City’s better-known traveling eateries end up, in Whole Foods’ hands, becoming the edible equivalent of elevator music — familiar, well-loved melodies with their songs’ souls sucked out?
The idea of Whole Foods being some weird suburban bazaar-o full of exotic corporate-approved pseudo-street-food is probably hard for some devotees of the culture to stomach, but the truth is, for most Whole Foods customers, grazing through the grocery’s expansive self-service steam-table offerings is already part of the shopping routine. An influx of street-food products in any part of the store would just mean a few more options. I’m not sure that the products would be seen as anything more than things to buy and eat, probably not valuable cultural artifacts at risk of dilution. Vendors — especially those with families who have been selling food on the streets to make a living, not entertain a hobby — might see Whole Foods as an opportunity to make their food work for them, and conceive of “selling out” as a dream, not a disappointment. It’s a path some might want to go down and others might not. I just hope people who’ve been pushing tamales at Bart stations for 20 years get a shot — that is, if they want one — along with Silicon Valley refugees with over-active Twitter accounts.
Whole Foods has been stocking locally sourced prepared foods for a while. About a year ago, I did a brief interview with Singh for an Oakland Tribune story about East and West Gourmet Food, the Afghan-owned Dublin outfit nearly unavoidable farmer’s markets throughout the region. Familiar with the company’s products from his days running farmer’s markets, he started stocking the company’s vegan bolani breads and savory dips. They sold very well, at one point, he told me — if memory serves me correctly — so well that a few items were turning over as fast as grocery list staples. According to a Wall Street Journal article, also published last week, Singh has had a hand in the draft kombucha that has been flowing at a few area stores. He’s also helped some of the small operations he’s tapped fund their expansions — all facilitated by the company’s 2006 $10 million dollar low-interest loan program for local farmers and producers. When Singh approached her, East and West Gourmet Food’s Nazie Sidiq didn’t worry about getting too big. Her company — really an extended family — grew, and when I turned in the piece, was preparing to grow much bigger. Sidiq told me very plainly that she wanted to be on Oprah, to have the whole world eating Afghan street food, learning about it, embracing it. If Whole Foods can make lesser-known culinary traditions accessible on a broad scale without sacrificing quality, the company is doing a service — to consumers, producers, and, of course, itself. There’s a lot about Whole Foods that gives a thoughtful consumer pause — not least of which is the behemoth store’s propensity for snatching business from small neighborhood groceries and markets. At the same time, unless you think street-food has to be a hardscrabble existence, or that a noble small business is a scarcely sustainable one, the trend is encouraging.