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Jul 5, 2008 11:22 AM

Steve Carlin's commodification model: Ferry Building v. Oxbow Market. Railroad Square?

With the addition of a fine bakery to the Oxbow Market, it's interesting how closely the mix of tenants Steve Carlin has put together matches what he put together for the Ferry Building. Except for specific restaurants, Oxbow is almows a clone of the Ferry Building Marketplace. Both have:

Hog Island Oyster Company outlet (opening 9/1 at Oxbow)
Taylor's Refresher outlet
Wine Merchant & Wine Bar
Two "natural" butchers
Cheese Merchant
Seafood Merchant
Olive Oil Merchant
Organic Produce Merchant
Herb and Spice Shop
Fancy Chocolatier
Coffee Roaster/Coffee Shop
Fine Tea Vendor
Ice Cream Store
Culinary Artifacts Store
Tableware/Kitchenware Store

It's easy to forecast what he has in store for Railroad Square in Santo Rosa; Carlin seems have developed the formula to become known as the Disney of culinary theme parks.

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  1. Looking over the list, is there some glaring obvious omission? I'm not sure what you are complaining about -- it seems a well-rounded selection of what one would want in a food mart and if you visit any other major food market in the world (Harrod's, for example?), the selection would be about the same.

    10 Replies
    1. re: Carrie 218

      As soon as I posted the above I realized there would be reactions like yours, but your mention of Harrod's gave me the perfect peg for a response. Sure, the package developed for the Ferry Bulding is designed to address nearly all the culinary needs of its patrons, if they happen to Eurocentric Caucasians (and wine-bibbers on top of that). Never mind that Caucasians are in the minority in San Francisco; Carlin's deconstructed Oakville Market (which is how I see the model) has obviously no intent of supporting or promoting the various ethnic cuisines SF is famous for, which it could do by providing the condiments, produce and whatever needed to replicate them at home.

      And how about a sop to us beerhounds?

      1. re: Xiao Yang

        So it sounds like what you want is a market that is full of ethnic grocery stores. But in all honesty, how often do you see hoards of ethnic shoppers at the Ferry Plaza? Not often -- they stick with their neighborhoods to buy those ingredients from purveyors they know and trust.

        While I agree that having a market with a wide variety of ethnic shops available all under one roof, even you must know how impractical it would be for the purveyor -- they would be taking a huge chance of having a wide variety of stock available to people who would have no knowledge of how to prepare the odd items.

        Think about it; if I want specialized Eastern European ingredients, I head to outer Richmond. When I need Middle Eastern specialties, I go to Clemente's Haigs. And I'm sure you have your specialty shops in Chinatown for those oddities that I, as a Westerner, would not have a clue about. How well would a place like Haigs thrive if they had to spend most of their time explaining what sumac is to people who never cook with it and would Haigs' customers want to deal with the crowds and parking problems of the Ferry Plaza to buy their za'tar? I doubt it...

        1. re: Carrie 218

          "But in all honesty, how often do you see hoards of ethnic shoppers at the Ferry Plaza?"

          My point, exactly. By design, it has little to offer the "hoards," as you call them, that make up the majority of San Franciscans.

          1. re: Xiao Yang

            You are re-validating your own point. The "majority" of San Francisco don't even shop at the Ferry Plaza so why should there be ethnic shops to accommodate people who don't shop there?

            That's like saying there aren't enough ice salesman for the Eskimos in Alaska.

            1. re: Carrie 218

              You are creating a circular argument here, which should be obvious to anybody following along. However, my earlier point was that Steve Carlin's transferrable model does not appear to particularly inclusionary in design, and as a result will probably work as well in Santa Rosa or Topeka as it does here.

              1. re: Xiao Yang

                I just don't get what you are complaining about. You want a market where you can get any ingredient of any ethnic cuisine yet KNOW that business-wise, it would be a losing proposition for those involved. So a guy comes up with a formula that *does* make money and that bothers you?

                1. re: Carrie 218

                  Nothing "bothers" me. I'm just giving a dispassionate analysis of what Steve Carlin's FBMP (and Oxbow and Railroad Square and... ) are and aren't, though that may bother other people.

                  FBMP makes money for reasons I won't get into here; Oxbow is not doing so well (at least one business I know of personally is close to tanking). And remember, Carlin couldn't make Oakville Grocery fly in SF either in a neighborhood or a tourist area. He's not King Midas.

                  1. re: Xiao Yang

                    Ferry Building wasn't exactly bustling during weekdays the first couple years, and even know that it's developed a following, there are still vacancies.

              2. re: Carrie 218

                The problem there is the market got subsidized by the city, and there is the implication that the project is serving the community. I'm personally glad there's something in San Francisco that isn't fixating on rare ethnic foods, or worse, fusion.... but it also seems to be catering to this fantasy San Franciscan that only exists in the pages of 7x7.

          2. re: Xiao Yang

            I can't tell from the thread whether you'd want the ethic shops in places like the Ferry Plaza or Carlin's, but I actually am ok with this and probably would not buy Chinese or Indian specialty foods at such places anyway, b/c I'm sure the markup would be much higher. The rents at the Ferry Plaza, I'm guessing, are pretty high, so I'd expect prices to be higher.

            In fact, since you mentioned z'atar, I can get an entire container for under $3 from a mediterranean restaurant, whereas I did see it at the Ferry Plaza--being sold for $7 for a smaller container.

        2. I totally agree with your point, though I might argue that Oxbow represents more of a formulaic "marketing mix" than a "commodification," since the shops are branded identities, At any rate, it sure seems to me that Oxbow is a mall approach to upscale food merchandising.

          The danger in such an approach is that the formula of the venue can take precedence over the shops. When that happens, the shops never gain the creative breathing room to flourish organically, as might happen if they were part of a real street in a real community. It can become a mall experience rather than a food experience.

          On our visit to Oxbow we had a great lunch lunch at Taylor's and bought some things at Fatted Calf and the Model Bakery, three local brands independent of the Oxbow enclosure. Inside the Oxbow building we were fairly bored with the offerings. Too much formula, too little authenticity. Hopefully that can change in time.

          1. Well who didn't see that coming? I do wish some things would be left special for San Francisco, but this is just indicative of a larger problem in general. I mean, What would be creative is for Napa to be it's own special complimentary thing, playing off the same concept, but offering what the city didn't. To me that's smart business since it seems that the FB most loyal fans probably live outside the city itself anyway. As it is, I don't think there's a single vendor exclusive to the FB. Even Adante can be found at Whole Foods, and Dean and Delucca.

            Is the Napa market connected to an outdoor green market as well? I don't think the gourmet food court idea is all that new (Faneuil Hall in Boston comes to mind for trying that stunt in the 80's). A big part of the Ferry Building's success has been the sustainable organic food trend, which despite some rebranding, didn't happen overnight. I don't mind it, but I'd hope there's more to offer tourist. (As an aside there are plans to do a copycat "sustainable food" market in NYC at the old Fulton Fish market. I think it's safe to expand XIao Yang's forecast to include every major city and then some.)

            3 Replies
            1. re: sugartoof

              There is an outdoor green market at Oxbow. It's on the east wall that faces the parking lot, an orderly line of nicely finished concrete stalls, each with water as I recall. It's "back" is to the Market. I wish it could have been the centerpiece.

              1. re: sugartoof

                But the thing with Ferry Plaza is that it is not about the Ferry Building. It is about the Saturday farmers market which existed for at least a decade before it moved to the current location.

                It is the farmers market that brings the customers to the Ferry Building. Napa or other locations won't have that.

                Yes, Napa has the Tuesday night 'locals market'. The question is will they decide to step in the building given what seems like outright hostility to the whole project. Napa may be the lesson in getting the locals on board in any future project.

                1. re: rworange

                  The Saturday Market is another subject entirely. That's CUESA's to live or die by, and nobody wants to hear my opinion on that.

              2. >It's easy to forecast what he has in store for Railroad Square in Santo Rosa; Carlin >seems have developed the formula to become known as the Disney of culinary theme >parks.

                I think once you replicate and make it a formula it loses something and the sameness infers Disney-fication. Of course it's hard to argue with success and if I were going to lay down money and take risks, I can't say I wouldn't do the same thing. However as a consumer I don't dig it and thus I don't go. I don't go to the FP very often as it is.

                The smarter money would reserve 25-40% of the tenants for something different. I don't know the whole scope and maybe that's happening...still won't go.

                I think the FP lucked out and was the right thing/place at the right time. If it helps the City and region, good.

                13 Replies
                1. re: ML8000

                  >>> I think the FP lucked out and was the right thing/place at the right time. <<<

                  It did luck out in having the built-in market which I don't think can be categorized as a separate subject. When I lived in SF, I lived about four blocks from the Ferry Building and I can honestly say if there were no farmers market there and I was still that close I wouldn't go there except for an occasional restaurant visit ... and that is in a basically supermarket-deprived location.

                  There's not a reason to go to Ciao Bella when I can get that in any grocer's freezer. Cowgirl Creamery, Acme? Nope .... much easier to keep up my trek to the holy Berkeley trinity ... Cheeseboard, Acme, Berkeley Bowl. And if I'm going to Sur La Tabla it is the Berkeley location ... in all the years in SF I never bought a thing in the other SF Sur La Tabla.

                  Far West Fungi ... can buy it at Whole Foods or farmers markets. The dried mushrooms at Sekor Polish Deli are better. Prather Ranch ... not into fancy beef. Golden Gate, never liked their stuff. The seafood joint, nope. The new cold cut joint ... Boccalone Salumeria. I can get that in most upscale markets ... I have no desire to go out of my way to watch sausage drying. Miette ... are you kidding?

                  The only reason these places get any of my business are because the farmers market is special enough that as long as I'm there, I'll pick up something at these shops.

                  I mean ... really ... I've been known to drop $100 in one day at the farmers market. But given the cost of the stores at Ferry Plaza, there is no way I could justify regularily shopping there.

                  Hmmm ... I'm begining to see the point of why Napa people might not be embracing Oxbow ... even though I shop there at least twice a month.It has that personal feel to me that the old Ferry Plaza farmers market had. I'm getting familiar with the vendors and some of them know me and what I like by now. It is small and personal which I don't think the shops at the Ferry Building have.

                  1. re: rworange

                    Some interesting comments about your shopping experiences at Ferry Plaza.

                    Living in Napa Valley, I've talked to plenty of food shoppers and great cooks who really love to search out ingredients. I've never heard anything resembling hostility in all my conversations that about Oxbox Market. In fact, many comments are similar to yours.

                    Here are the comments that keep coming up:

                    1-- The building is completely ugly -- it looks like a high school gymnasium built in the 70s. Not the charm or Romanticism of the Ferry Building.

                    2 -- Bad part of town. Quasi-industrial. Not much else is there. Don't want to make a special trip.

                    3 -- The place feels sterile, cold. Not many food vendors, not many people, lots of expensive knickknacks like pottery, and not much food.

                    4 -- Ingredients are found elsewhere, if one wishes to seek them out. The regular farmer's markets and farm stands are better than the ones next door at Copia.

                    So, it seems that the lack of support for Oxbow is based on fairly common-sense reasons. I wouldn't characterize those responses as hostile.

                    1. re: maria lorraine

                      There's a bit of hostility directed at Oxbow among some of my neighbors, which is understandable given that we used to live in a quiet neighborhood with a nice grocery store and a dive bar, and now we live in a foodie land with only the fanciest of groceries and a wine bar. Those folks are still bitter about Copia.

                      I agree about the ugliness and sterility of the building and also, where is the entrance? What is going on in the front of the building? Completely unwelcoming.

                      I'm worried about Oxbow. I wander in at odd hours and find it quiet as a library. Three vendors have told me they are losing money. "Local's night" on Tuesdays isn't bringing in crowds that I can see. Unlike SF and the FB, Napa simply doesn't have the volume of upper-middle-class locals to support it. Given that tourists couldn't support Copia, things don't look good to me. And the 1st Street bridge being closed until Fall 09 is a nightmare.

                      1. re: Junie D

                        They have a "locals night?" The implication of that is that non-locals are their main market. I'd say the rising gas prices may be the nail in the coffin.

                        1. re: Xiao Yang

                          Non-locals are definitely the main market. Despite a blockbuster opening, I don't think Whole Foods is doing that well either (correct me if I'm wrong, but it is often very quiet too). I'm still hopeful that Oxbow will work. Taylor's certainly is packed every day. Maybe it is growing pains - we'll see.

                          1. re: Xiao Yang

                            Tuesday night was always called something like that. It is the big farmers market night for Napa.

                            I have to agree that fixing that bridge was insane. It would be the equivalent of closing down the Embarcadero for repairs when FP first opened.

                            1. re: rworange

                              I'm not sure what you mean. Tues. morning, and Sat am, is the Farmers' Market at Copia. Thursday night is the "Chef's Market" downtown.

                              1. re: rworange

                                I was involved in transportation planning for Napa as a consultant to the City, and knew that funding for the 1st Street bridge was in the pipeline for many years. The Oxbow people (or their consultants) should have known about it in plenty of time to chicken out. The world doesn't stop for foodie projects.

                        2. re: rworange

                          Do you find that you're losing interest in the Green Market as well now that few if any vendors are selling there exclusively?

                          As it is, the focus on the prepared food carts is beginning to overshadow the farm vendors. I mean how many Blue Bottle carts do they need? It's taking on a Pier39 vibe, which I guess a lot of people are into. It's distracting if you just want to buy some dates.

                          1. re: sugartoof

                            It's not just the prepared food carts, it's the dominance by value-added products generally that gives me pause. Preserves, lavender salts, bread, sausages, cheese, coffee beans, granola, tofu, pastas, yogurt, etc are a long way from the farm. And what the heck is Sukhi's Quick-N-Ezee doing at every farmers' market on the planet, as well as in Costco's refregerated shelves?

                            When chowhounds post about their favorite items at the FPFM or make suggestions for visitors, they invariably focus on value-added products. It's the rare individual that gushes about ears of corn or wonderful rutabagas, and nobody wants to take these home on the plane.

                            It's really an outdoor general store, not a traditional green market.

                            1. re: sugartoof

                              The thing with the Saturday market is that I can buy most of the same products at other farmers markets so it isn't worth my while to make a special trip there often.

                              The advantage of FP is that often the owners are there and have a lot more insight than the people who man the stands at the other markets.

                              Also FP gets first pick of produce, so a limited product like a rare fig or berry is more likely to be there.

                              Having shopped at Ferry Plaza in various locations over the years, I don't think the prepared vendors have taken over. Preserves, lavender salts, bread, sausages, cheese, coffee beans, granola, tofu, pastas, yogurt, etc were always at the market.

                              If I still lived in the city, I'd gush about my produce finds for locals ... like I have many, many times in the past. I don't know if she is posting under another name or just left the board, but Tida often posted lots of produce tips.

                              That's not to say that Ferry Plaza hasn't lost long-time vendors because of the location and the difficulty of getting that produce to the car. The melons and non-sexy root veggies took a hit.

                              For visitors it makes no sense to recommend fresh veggies. There are two audiances for FP.

                              1. re: rworange

                                We're basically talking about a boutique mall devoted to food, with a focus on high end, and organic products. I wouldn't expect it to operate like a pure green market which would make it more challenging to pay a visit and leave with the fixings for a meal. I just think the idea of making a social event out of a green market isn't for everyone. The fact that the longest lines are with the tamales, and other food carts says a lot and I predict those vendors will increase.

                                "Also FP gets first pick of produce, so a limited product like a rare fig or berry is more likely to be there."

                                Did you determine this from talking with the farmers?

                                1. re: sugartoof

                                  Mainly experience ... and getting to FP as it opened. When Langier has Arapaho berries they are never at any other market and sell out early. I forgot the vendor, but the figs they sell at FP the doen't sell anywhere else. I asked about that one ... and all these decades later I have yet to catch that darn fig ... It always appears briefly the one week I don't go. There's a bunch of stuff like that. The figs and berries just stick in my mind.