Just like they have so many times since the start of CUESA’s weekly market in 1993, farmers, chefs, and hungry locals will rub elbows at the Ferry Building this weekend — only this time, with much more champagne. The Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture, better known by its acronym, celebrates its 25th birthday this Sunday, and promises the event will be “the freshest and most delicious party in a quarter century,” with 45 restaurants and 20 wineries, breweries, and spirits makers in the house.
The occasion definitely calls for a toast: In 25 years, CUESA’s market has helped launch some of the area’s best-loved businesses — 4505, Cowgirl Creamery, Acme Bread, Humphry Slocombe, Rancho Gordo, Tacolicious, Reem’s, and many more — all while building community, inspiring chefs, and fostering education. (Tickets to CUESA’s 25th Birthday Bash are available online.)
And in honor of the occasion, Eater SF spoke to CUESA executive director Marcy Coburn, who explained how she hopes the party will keep going for the next 25 years.
On the Ferry Building
We’re very proud of our symbiotic relationship with the Ferry Building, but the founding of CUESA precedes the founding of the Ferry Building [as a food market hall] by 10 years. The early conceptualizing behind the building [as a market hall] was based on the interest around the farmers market.
Four years after the freeway fell [in 1993] there was total devastation on the Embarcadero. Out of that came the farmers market. People were responding to that tragedy, saying, let’s make something beautiful here... [The fact] that shoppers would come there to get fresh produce, that was the idea behind putting some of those businesses into the Ferry Building.
On working with chefs
We work with over 300 restaurants: We have restaurant members who have permitting from us, and we provide front row, VIP parking [to the Saturday market]. We manage it so chefs can park there, we have chef carts, we fast track them around the market. We do a chef newsletter with what’s trending... CUESA’s unique because we don’t just sell peaches, we sell 20 varieties of peaches, so we’re constantly connecting farmers with chefs.
That relationship is vital: It’s set the food world of the Bay Area apart from the rest of the country. [And] chefs prioritize it, and have supported local farmers. Without those chef sales, it’s harder to make ends meet: Do you want to sell a box of peaches to a chef, or one peach to a tourist?
On expanding for the future
As of May 2016, we’ve been operating the Jack London Square market in Oakland, and as of April of this year, we were invited by the volunteers at the Mission Community Market [to organize that Market, which has been operating for eight years]. Our offices are in the Ferry building: That’s where we host our events, that’s very important as the heart of CUESA, but we’re very excited about being in these communities.
Being in [Jack London] has been an incredible experience... It’s our expertise to be in on the ground floor of an up-and-coming food and retail hub. Oakland is really different that San Francisco, so we’re not doing a cookie cutter replica of what we do at the Ferry Building, but we’re trying to do something that works for Oakland, and same in the Mission, [where] we’ve continued all the [existing] relationships.
On launching businesses through Farmer’s Markets
There’s no better way to prove your concept — you can set up your business at low cost, adapt recipes — that’s unique to farmers market... One objective of our expansion is to provide more opportunities for more businesses.
On the rise of grocery and food delivery
Food delivery as we’ve seen it has been really interesting to watch — but it isn’t as awesome and exciting as maybe we thought it would be. I think that farmers markets are coming out ahead, and that’s because we need each other — we humans belong together, and we need to come together in community, in food. No automated, robot-driven tech solution is going take away the fact that people need one another.
On supporting farmers
Every growing region can create mechanisms to support the local food system. We don’t need to be eating strawberries in the middle of winter [that are] shipped and ripened in warehouses. That isn’t sustainable, it isn't’ supportive to farmers and the hard, often thankless job of growing food.
Caring about food and where it comes from and getting up and supporting a local food system and farmers markets is a radical act and not something to be taken for granted. [And] the more people that shop in farmers markets, the more affordable food becomes, that’s just scale.
My call to action, always, is put your money where your mouth is... for 25 years, people have, and that’s why we’re celebrating.
CUESA’s 25th Birthday Bash is this Sunday, June 10, from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Ferry Building. The entire lineup and tickets to the event are available here.