By Jesse Hirsch | BayCitizen.org
Like many San Franciscans over the past few years, Matt Cohen had a foodie dream: to run a food truck, serving the ramen noodle dishes he learned to prepare in Japan.
So in mid-2008, he quit his job as a hotel manager and started hosting pop-up dinners in coffee shops.
But Cohen ran into a wall when it came to obtaining permits to operate his business. Even in this capital of foodie culture, city bureaucracy was ill-prepared to deal with the “food truck revolution” sweeping the country.
Ultimately, Cohen never sold a bowl of soup out of his own truck. Instead, he built a business that has fulfilled the gourmet dreams of scores of other food entrepreneurs: Off the Grid, the for-profit food truck business he founded just over a year ago, now supports a rapidly expanding network of about 100 mobile food vendors at weekly events around the Bay Area.
The clusters of brightly painted vans serving distinctive fare, like Mexi-Filipino fusion and French bistro food, in parking lots, parks and other open spaces draw huge crowds of happy eaters and — to a striking degree — have come to define the local upscale food truck experience.
“Matt has reshaped the way food trucks operate in this city,” said Curtis Kimball, owner of the Crème Brûlée Cart. “I don’t want to say it’s power, but that’s what it is.”
More than just a food event company, Off the Grid is a soup-to-nuts, vertically integrated operation, assisting mobile food vendors with everything from location scouting to social media tricks to truck aesthetics. Cohen personally vets the cuisine of every vendor. And perhaps most important, Off the Grid gives vendors a way to bypass, or at least expedite, the city’s byzantine permitting structure.
Cohen started while perceptions of street food, once the province of hot dog carts and other low-cost setups, were evolving. Consumer demand has propelled mobile cuisine to its current upscale incarnation, with everything from foie gras torchon to caprese salad available.
Food truck culture “used to be a joke,” said Tim Zagat, co-founder of Zagat Survey, the restaurant guide company. “We would call those things ‘roach coaches.’” Now, he said, Zagat reviews trucks “on the level of any good restaurant.” This year’s Bay Area Zagat guide reviews eight mobile food vendors, all of them Off the Grid participants.
In early 2010, Cohen spoke with Caleb Zigas, director of the food business incubator La Cocina, and found out one of La Cocina’s mobile food start-ups was selling at Fort Mason, a former Army post in the north of San Francisco. Because it was federal land, it was “off the grid,” not subject to San Francisco’s complex permit rules.
In short order, the wheels were in motion for the first Off the Grid event, which started over the last weekend of June 2010 with 10 trucks. The first week drew 1,000 people. Six weeks later, more than 5,000 attended.
Cohen said San Francisco’s Recreation and Park Department, which had tentatively been considering opening park spaces to food trucks, was heartened by Fort Mason’s success. Off the Grid soon began securing spaces in city-owned parks.
By the end of 2010 there were five markets. That number has since doubled, with more locations expected.
Despite many reforms enacted in March, San Francisco’s mobile food permitting process remains a lengthy, sometimes challenging ordeal. Pete Buckley owns Gorilla Pete’s, an upscale hot dog cart with toppings like banana peppers, Sriracha sauce and cream cheese. After years of selling illegally in front of a music club in San Francisco’s Western Addition neigh
borhood, Buckley applied for a curbside permit. It took six months for approval.
Most others have not been even that lucky. According to Gloria Chan of the Department of Public Works, her department has received 160 applications since March and only 36 have been approved. The D.P.W. permits, distinct from health and fire department permits, give vendors the chance to sell curbside at public locations throughout the city. But all it takes is one complaint from a neighbor to delay applications in lengthy hearings processes. Additionally, the city has its own long list of considerations in blocking permits.
“It can seem pretty arbitrary,” said Andrew Baber, who runs Off the Grid’s consulting arm. “They’ll deny your permit because there’s an unused air-conditioning vent like 500 feet away.”
By contrast, Off the Grid vendors do not need a D.P.W. permit, as its event spaces are preapproved for mobile food vending. And Cohen says health and fire licenses are expedited for his clients.
Bobby Hussein, owner of a soon-to-open truck, Phat Thai, had heard horror stories about how long it could take to obtain permits. “City Hall knows all these Off the Grid guys.” he said, “It took four days to get my permits.”
“You can try to make it on your own,” said Bevan Dufty, the former San Francisco city supervisor who has worked with Cohen on mobile food legislation. “But why would you want to?”
This help is not free, however. Off the Grid charges $50 per event, plus 10 percent of each vendor’s earnings. Additional advice on starting a new mobile food business costs $150 per hour.
In addition, before new trucks are allowed to join, Cohen’s team taste-tests all the food, reviews the aesthetics of the truck and makes suggestions or demands. “We don’t book anyone whose food we don’t like,” Cohen said. “And if we have concerns with how you’re running your business, we’re going to be brutally honest.”
Not all vendors are interested in subjecting themselves to these rules. Meg Hilgartner is co-owner of Twirl and Dip, an organic soft-serve ice cream truck. She worked Off the Grid events for three months while she was waiting for a permit in Golden Gate Park. But since the park permit came through, Hilgartner has not returned. “If you’re with Off the Grid, you’re managed by Matt Cohen and his team,” she said. “If it’s rainy or foggy, I want to go home!”
Making it on your own is not easy, though. Cass Thatcher owns Go Mama Cass, a Vietnamese fusion truck that rolled out in August. She received city permitting for one curbside location, in an isolated stretch of Mission Bay. Thatcher began to doubt her entire venture until she had her first Off the Grid experience, selling at a popular Thursday market.
“I didn’t just feel like I was out there by myself,” Thatcher said. “We had lines of real customers!”
As Off the Grid continues to expand, opening a new market in Marin on Oct. 9, other Bay Area entrepreneurs have started Off the Grid-style events, to mixed results. An event called Bites off Broadway was shut down in Oakland, because of that city’s tight regulatory environment. (It has since obtained limited permission to operate a small weekly market until the end of October.)
But in San Francisco, two new food truck markets have thrived. Both hosted on private lots, Lunch Box and Truck Stop follow similar models: food trucks pay a portion of their proceeds to operate in the markets, they bypass the need for city operating permits, and they benefit from a consolidated marketing structure.
Ryan Gessel, creator of the Lunch Box, credits Off the Grid with changing the face of Bay Area street food.
“I don’t even consider Off the Grid a competitor,” he said “Without it, we wouldn’t be here.”