S.F. Food Carts Get Boost From New Rules

Matt Cohen - Founder of "Off The Grid"
Matt Cohen - Founder of "Off The Grid"

SAN FRANCISCO – The wedding guests left the bride and groom at City Hall one recent Friday afternoon and rushed across the street to catch the latest dining craze, a “food pod” parked in the plaza.

“Even before the wedding, everyone was saying they were coming here,” said Patrick Tomas, eyeing the food trucks selling Mexican-Filipino tacos, Korean barbecue and “Floribbean” pulled pork sandwiches. “There are a lot of dishes here you’d never find in a restaurant.”

The nomadic food court in the shadow of City Hall’s golden dome has gotten a boost from new rules that local officials, the restaurant industry and vendors hope will both encourage and control the burgeoning cart entrepreneurs. The Board of Supervisors recently passed regulations to simplify the permit process, lower fees, expand territory and require notification of nearby restaurants and neighbors.

“There is a built-in foodie culture here and also a willingness to be adventurous in eating,” said Matt Cohen, who championed the new rules as founder this year of Off the Grid, which organizes the cart clusters at five locations around the city and enables the food-obsessed to track them with Google maps. “Plus, people are seeking value at this moment.”

Despite intermittent drizzle, a crowd of city workers, lawyers, students, tourists and wedding guests milled around the carts. They stood in lines eight deep to buy pork sliders and goat cheese paninis. A jazz trio serenaded from under a sycamore tree, and a homeless man rolled through in a tattered red office chair.

Cohen, 31, said he became enamored with street food culture when he was teaching English in Japan. Back in the Bay Area, he dabbled in the mobile food business with plans for a handful of ramen noodle trucks. The recession and a collection of Byzantine laws dashed those.


Instead, he launched the SF Cart Project, a free online resource for vendors, offering links to permit information, business planning and social media. The response was so enthusiastic that he started Off the Grid as well as a food truck consulting business. For inspiration, he looked to Portland and New York, where food truck culture has become a movement.

“This started as just food,” Cohen said, “but people are taking the concept and using the artisanal process to go mobile in other ways.”

He sees potential in produce stands, butchers and cutlery.

Carts in the Bay Area already have cult status. Fans follow them on Facebook and Twitter, often dashing out to grab a steamed pork bun or cup of halo halo bread pudding after checking online schedules, then bragging to co-workers stuck with stale sandwiches and Cup O Noodles.

The new rules let vendors buy one set of permits for multiple sites and cut fees by more than half. The cost of operating in five public locations will fall to $3,823 from $9,411.

The rules also allow carts in residential commercial districts. Vendors applying for permits will have to notify restaurants within 300 feet and cannot operate next to businesses selling similar food. Nearby tenants and businesses can call for a hearing to discuss concerns.

More than 150 carts now hold permits, a number that is expected to grow. Off the Grid works with vendors at United Nations Plaza, Civic Center, McCoppin Hub off Market Street, Haight Ashbury and Fort Mason.

Restaurants and neighbors have complained about food trucks in the past, citing competition, noise and litter.

“Our concern was balance, that a food cart not have an unfair competitive advantage,” said Kevin Westlye, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association. “I think that was achieved.”

Daniel Gutierrez, an owner of 51st State, which offers regional American food, recalled going through three “major departments” and several smaller ones to operate on public property. He still faces the daily challenges of engine problems, a door flying open on the highway or, as happened recently, a woman trying to trade crystals for food, but now at least he knows where and how he will be able to renew his permit.

“It used to be so confusing,” said co-owner Francesca Salcido. “Every time I called someone to say I needed a permit they would say, ‘Oh my God, I don’t know. Let me call someone else and get back to you.’ ”