Almost every food craving you could ever think of could be satisfied by at least one of the food trucks at any given Off the Grid location in San Francisco. In just a couple of years, OtG in Fort Mason has become the single largest weekly block party for foodies in the Bay Area.
But with almost every food category being represented there, is there fear of street food being a trend that’s reaching oversaturation? Off the Grid’s man-in-charge, Matt Cohen, says absolutely not.
“I think of Asia and how prolific street food is and how it’s a part of people’s lives. Will all of them launching right now stay in business? Probably not. But there’s a long way to go before we hit the saturation point. The rest of the world has experience with street food and we were so far behind here in the Bay Area. People had to think of them not as roach coaches, so we just had to catch up.”
Cohen fell in love with street food while living in Japan as an English teacher. When he returned to the States, he tried to start his own food truck in 2007. His plans got halted after the recession hit, and he decided to turn his experience with getting a mobile food business started, permits, rules and all, into a food truck consultant business in 2008. Eventually, the idea of Off the Grid got off the ground.
“My clients were asking how we could find better locations and how trucks could group together at different locations. There was obviously a need and it was clear that no one truck could handle the task alone. Off the Grid is more of a curation of these food trucks.”
There are now six Off the Grid (OtG) events throughout the week in San Francisco, and possible OtGs in San Mateo, the South Bay and East Bay expected to be announced within the next six weeks. But is all this street food too much?
“What we’ve learned is that the only ‘destination’ OtG is Fort Mason in the city, where people from all over the Bay Area come to visit. Most of the other current locations are driven by locals and their needs in those areas. We like to create and attract community in the places we go, and those spots seem to have a need. And we try to make sure we switch out the trucks so it’s never the same experience every time.”
Cohen says they have 30-40 food trucks on their roster right now, but expect that number to DOUBLE by the end of the season! And there’s no threat of too much culinary overlap, either.
“No one would argue that we don’t need more fusion taco trucks and cupcake trucks. But there are a number of burger, sandwich, soup, pizza and salad food trucks coming soon.”
It’s only been about four years since food carts, trucks and the like hit the Bay Area, but the category has seen a lot of evolution since 2007.
“I think we’re sort of entering a third wave with the food truck scene here. There were guerrilla street food carts for a while with the Magic Curry and Crème Brulee Karts. They brought a lot of attention to the fun and whimsy of eating on the street. Plus, they really knew how to cook.”
“Then the second coming was when those guys, along with formal chefs, saw a demand for it but realized you couldn’t make a living with underground street food. It’s not a long term job, it’s a hobby. And experienced restauranteurs liked the simplicity of the truck.”
“Now, there’s a third wave happening, where people are taking that blueprint of the mobile food truck and going in all sorts of directions, like Rib Whip and Le Truc. There’s a ton of new trucks coming out now.”
Street food may still seem new to us, but there’s no reason why it can’t be here to stay, much like it is in other parts of the world. Of course, Cohen has a business stake in it all, but he’s attracted to this type of culinary experience for personal reasons too.
“I love eating outside! We can all try different foods and sit outside, have a great time, run into friends, and it’s affordable. Your kids can run around, you can bring your dog, and run into people you haven’t seen in a while. It’s a community space.”
As for the food truck he bought in 2007, he’s still got it, and just recently decided to start renting it out.
“We actually just started using the truck I bought back in 2007. We’re not serving food off of it, but it’s great for demos for chefs who are considering starting their own street food business, or for someone who wants to try it out before considering buying one for themselves. And it’s got televisions attached to it so it’s great for broadcasting Giants games.”