A New Coalition: Friendlier Pod Model for Food Truck Operators?

The North Berkeley Off the Grid offers participating trucks a slew of perks — for a price.

By Luke Tsai | EastBayExpress.com

The North Berkeley Off the Grid offers participating trucks a slew of perks — for a price.

The latest in what has become a torrent of weekly mobile food events (“food pods”) launching in Oakland takes off this Thursday: A three-truck pod organized by Kate McEachern, proprietor of the CupKates mobile cupcakery, will be open for business at the intersection of 12th and Broadway from 11:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.

It’s great news for street food lovers who live or work in that ‘hood, especially since the so-called 12th Street Pod will kick off with an all-star lineup of trucks: CupKates, Go Streatery, and 510 Burger (with Ebbett’s Good to Go and Seoul on Wheels slotting in on alternating weeks). Together with the debut of Gail Lillian’s Clay Pod last week, the pod also hails a new model for food truck operators in the East Bay — one that’s not controlled by professional event organizers and that, at least in theory, may prove more profitable for participating trucks.

Much has been written about the event-organizer model that was popularized, most notably, by the Off the Grid events, which have spread like wildfire around the Bay Area. Pods put together by professional organizers like OTG’s Matt Cohen offer a slew of benefits: The organizer shoulders the responsibility of dealing with permits and municipal red tape, and also supplies a far-reaching marketing machine and other crowd generators, like live music.

But in exchange for the right to participate in these pods, the individual trucks have to fork over a significant chunk of their profits — typically $50 to $80 per event, plus five to ten percent of total sales, according to Gail Lillian, owner of LIBA Falafel Truck.

So when Oakland approved a pilot program allowing legally-sanctioned food pods in the city for the first time, Lillian called together a meeting with the owners of several long-established East Bay trucks: LIBA, CupKates, Doc’s on the Bay, Ebbett’s Good to Go, Fivetenburger, Go Streatery, and Seoul on Wheels. Together, Lillian and her peers came up with a plan that would, in a sense, eliminate the middleman: They made a list of viable food pod locations and divided up the responsibility of applying for the necessary permits. The idea was to populate these pods with each other’s trucks, and to do so using a discounted fee structure. Each pod applicant would only charge the bare minimum to cover his or her own expenses.

“We decided that one of the great things about not being in the organizer business is we don’t have to profit off of each other,” Lillian explained.

Practically speaking, this means the flat fee paid by each participating truck will be between $50 and $100 per event — usually on the lower end of that, with no additional cut of their profits. Lillian noted that each site has different costs associated with it — for her Clay Pod, in addition to the $800 she paid up front to apply, there are about $200 of ongoing expenses each week (e.g. covering the cost of the parking meters occupied by the three trucks in the pod).

Nevertheless, both Lillian and McEachern stressed that they don’t mean to set themselves up in opposition to Off the Grid — that they like that business model, too, and will continue participating in organizer-sponsored mobile food events. McEachern noted that, by necessity, these new pods would be more of a grassroots effort.

“That’s what [those organizers] do for a living,” she said. “You pay for their reach and their marketing and their staff.”

All told, five different pods will be sponsored by members of this loose association of trucks. In addition to Lillian’s Tuesday pod on Clay Street and McEachern’s Thursday pod, Traci Prendergast — co-owner of Vesta Flatbread — has applied for a pod that will take place in front of the Splash Pad Park on Grand Avenue from 5 to 9 on Thursday nights. That one will launch on May 24.

In addition, there will be a Thursday pod on Clay Street sponsored by the proprietors of Ebbett’s Good to Go, and a Wednesday pod at Snow Park headed up by Doc’s on the Bay. Launch dates for those two have yet to be set.

Got tips or suggestions? Email me at Luke (dot) Tsai (at) EastBayExpress (dot) com. Otherwise, keep in touch by following me on Twitter @theluketsai, or simply by posting a comment. I’ll read ‘em all.