Public market a once and future idea for Sacramento

Nearly 40 years after Sacramento’s last urban public market closed due to changing times and a dwindling interest, developers have revived interest and then some in a new kind of market that links to the city’s past while tapping into the ever-evolving food-centric momentum in the region.

What such a market will be, exactly, remains to be seen. But just last week, those pushing for it saw plenty of hope when 25,000 people descended upon Capitol Mall for the Farm-To-Fork Festival. Those folks, mingling at dozens of booths related to food, drink and farming, can be considered the prime demographic eager to support the proposed public market downtown, according to Randall Selland, a longtime chef and restaurant owner.

The turnout, which delighted and perhaps surprised insiders and observers alike, also signaled the support for the city’s new campaign as the “Farm-To-Fork Capital” had extended well beyond foodies, farmers and restaurateurs. Coupled with plans to build a downtown arena, the public market dream is riding a wave of momentum.

While short on specifics for now – and with a new Facebook page collecting “likes” and soliciting input – Sacramento’s version of a public market would likely feature a variety of vendors in a single, open-concept building: eateries, specialty food shops such as cheese and charcuterie, a coffee shop, bakery, a wine merchant and farm-fresh produce, to name but a few.

The idea is to build a concept around food, attract a variety of people to one locale and get them to spend money on a variety of items and options, all the while affording them a chance to run into friends and neighbors doing something similar.

“We welcome that with open arms. That would be the coolest thing,” said Selland, whose Selland Restaurant Groups owns Ella Dining Room & Bar, The Kitchen Restaurant and Selland’s Market-Cafe.

“But you have to get the balance right. You’ve got to get the locals there, and you’ve got to get the tourists. You also have to get the right price point, which is pretty low for state workers. You also have to have the staying power to change and evolve.”

When it comes to public markets, Sacramento already has a proven track record, though one practically lost to history. The best-known public market in town operated from 1923 to 1974 at 13th and J streets, site of the current Sheraton Grand, which restored the much-admired market building designed by Julia Morgan.

In its heyday, it was a bustling and eclectic market, according to Maryellen Burns, a local historian and co-author of the recently published book “Lost Restaurants of Sacramento and Their Recipes.”

Lota & Son Poultry Co. raised chickens by the thousands on the roof of the market and slaughtered them for customers on the spot. That kind of farm-to-fork connection may be too cozy for 21st century shoppers, but Burns says the emphasis here should be on connecting the food, the farmers and a strong sense of place.

“You can feel the connection to the food and that’s what will make it real,” she said, noting that the public market also contained such disparate businesses as a vacuum cleaner company, a printer and a meat market in which the butchers wore white shirts with black neckties. The market at 13th and J eventually fell out of favor with shoppers, what with a dramatic population shift to the suburbs, a reliance on the automobile and the emergence of major grocery stores and shopping malls with vast parking lots.

“The public market was pretty funky when it closed,” said Burns. “The Convention Center had come in and downtown was more of a showplace. And as beautiful as it was on the outside, the inside was not all that provocative. Add that everyone’s going to the suburbs, fewer of us were shopping downtown, and it had outlived its usefulness.”

While many are heartened that the potential developers of the Sacramento public market have ties to the bustling Oxbow Market in Napa and the renowned Ferry Building Marketplace in San Francisco, Burns says she would like to see developers look to our past for ideas. Specifically, she says both Oxbow and the Ferry Building have permanent tenants and little to no flexibility to rotate temporary or seasonal booths or kiosks in and out.

“It was always a combination of permanent stalls and itinerant stalls where everyday people could come in and sell things,” Burns said of Sacramento’s market. “I like that better than Oxbow and the Ferry Building, where everything is static and there are no surprises.”

Steve Carlin, one of the players in the push to bring a public market to town, developed Oxbow and was a project manager for the Ferry Building. Sacramento attorney Jeffrey Dorso, another proponent, says it’s clear such a market could pack a major economic wallop for the city. The Lexington Market in Baltimore, he noted, attracts 2.5 million visitors annually.

A public market means different things to different people, but Dorso describes it this way: “It’s a community gathering place that should celebrate and emphasize what’s local – local coffee establishments, breweries and wineries, produce and amenities like olive oil, that kind of thing.”

John Paul Khoury, the corporate chef for Preferred Meats, a supplier to many top restaurants, said he likes the Ferry Building model, though on a smaller scale with more emphasis on agriculture.

“Any time you can feature what’s being produced in the area, it’s great because you get a fresher product and you form a connection with the people who grow it,” he said. “You can’t go wrong with what they have at the Ferry Building. You can have a great cup of coffee, good restaurants to get something to eat, and they have good charcuterie there.

“I’d also like to see it be a place where people come to Sacramento to visit, but also a place that’s a resource for regulars, so it’s not just a touristy spot,” Khoury continued. “I don’t like those kinds of places.”

Josh Bieker, a chef at Nugget Market who has traveled extensively to dine at many of the world’s best restaurants, said he would like to see a market anchored by food but with enough other attractions to create an eclectic shopping and visiting experience.

“I’d like to see restaurants, maybe a Cafe Rolle. I’d like to see open stalls with passionate people – like Twiggs (Floral Design) on J Street, a mini meat counter, a mini Sunh Fish, a mini Ginger Elizabeth Chocolates.”

The concept has created plenty of buzz – where it will be, what it will have, when it will open.

“If everything goes right,” Dorso said, “In the next 12 months you’d have a plan, a location, the structure, the financing in place and be ready to move forward with developing a project.”

The last time the public market concept was attempted was in the mid-1990s. The thought was to capitalize on the successes of a now-defunct Thursday Night Market on the K Street mall, while also tapping into increased foot traffic after the 1993 renovation of Downtown Plaza. Plans called for a 19,000-square-foot public market in Old Sacramento, and city officials borrowed $690,000 in redevelopment funds to make it a reality.

The Old Sacramento Market opened for daily business in September 1996 but never found mass appeal with locals, and revenues were half of early projections. Much of the modest business came from tourists who purchased produce and goods from such vendors as Olson Farms and Aki’s Market.

This is a significantly different era – and in a much different Sacramento – than the the mid-1990s. The emphasis on local, organic and seasonal produce is now mainstream. The wine industry, including urban wineries and tasting rooms, is exponentially bigger. There are more restaurants and more varieties of restaurants, and eateries have been credited with revitalizing downtown and midtown. Farmers markets are crowded year-round. And small craft breweries have burst onto the scene in the past year or two.