Off the grid SF pioneers a mobile food movement
November 30, 2010 6:10 PM
You have ten dollars in your pocket and your nose picks up a scent. There is a sweet, smoky aroma in the air as you approach a half-circle of lit up trucks and begin to hear the sound of a jazz saxophone. Families, students, and nearly every passerby follow your lead and soon you are all seated, enjoying a plate of varied deliciousness from a number of street food vendors who have rolled into an Off the Grid event.
The best part is that you can experience this scenario on an increasingly common evening in the streets of San Francisco as the mobile food revolution evolves the way we enjoy meals socially. Local food vendors are re-imagining two things San Franciscans hold dear - a good meal for a good price.
"We try to make all of our events different because they all attract a different crowd," Matt Cohen, founder of Off the Grid and the SF Cart Project, says. "The largest is on Friday evenings at Fort Mason where we usually have live music, a bar, and extended hours. Upper Haight starts off with a lot of families then changes into more students as the night goes on."
This diverse crowd represents just how furious a momentum food carts have picked up over the past few months. Mobile vendors, who used to seemingly live in isolation in the late-night streets of the Mission District with bacon-wrapped hot dogs and in the ice chests of Dolores Park on a sunny afternoon are now the same generation of food providers that serve business people in the Financial District, pre-partiers in the Marina, and a bevy of students and hipsters in the Upper Haight daily. Off the Grid is a pioneer in this trend, holding weekly mini-festivals that attract gourmet trucks and hungry stomachs alike with five different locations in nearly every corner of the city.
Off the Grid: Upper Haight is the newest of these spots, setting up shop on Stanyan Street just outside the East entrance of Golden Gate Park. Though each unique location has a core group of trucks that you will reliably find parked and open for business each week, Cohen keeps the lineup exciting with new vendors at most events.
Cohen's influence and dedication to bringing street food to the masses has manifested itself into a full-blown revolution. With a background in education and business, he has spent the past few years consulting for local food start-ups. This interest evolved into helping a number of food carts, including all those who participate in Off the Grid events, in getting proper permits and licenses so that they can legally and efficiently operate their business at various locations throughout the Bay Area. This is a process independent vendors can often have a hard time resourcing on their own without the proper network that consultants like Cohen can provide.
According to a recent San Francisco Chronicle article, talk amongst city supervisors of a newly proposed bill may make it less expensive and more inclusive for small, developing food trucks by issuing annual permits, giving permission to operate in multiple locations, and reducing the initial fee by almost a third. With these updates in place, mobile food businesses would be able to set up normal, regulated hours of operation and have a better chance of establishing a set following in a given location.
Local organizations are taking notice of the need of aid for prospective vendors and none more so than La Cocina, a non-profit food business incubator. The organization's key purpose is to help low income food entrepreneurs learn the basics of running their business and provides them with resources and training to see their ideas to fruition.
"Mobile food businesses have a much lower entry point than a brick and mortar restaurant," says Julie Flynn of La Cocina. "Most of the time, vendors lack the resources."
La Cocina launches many successful street food businesses in the Bay Area through a process of education and instruction that begins with prospective clients working through an application process. If accepted, La Cocina will help entrepreneurs take their concepts and develop a business plan, work on a marketing strategy, and ensure that the quality of their product is as high as possible. If applicants are not accepted, they will still provides them with valuable feedback and suggested resources to pursue so that they can continue moving forward with the next step of their business.
Flynn insists that although the city is saturated with restaurants and continues to grow in terms of brick-and-mortar eating establishments, there still is nothing like the satisfaction locals get from eating outside, something the California food scene smartly takes advantage of.
This past summer, La Cocina organized the second annual SF Street Food Fest, held in the Mission District. The event, which combines stand-alone food trucks as well as local restaurants and bars participating in street food specific-menus, drew a larger crowd than its previous inaugural year. The first National Street Food Conference, held in San Francisco in conjunction with the festival, hosted panel discussions and presentations on the mobile food industry from educators, writers, entrepreneurs and consultants in the field.
"It was a major access to markets and sales for businesses in our program," says Flynn. "We built a lot of momentum and are excited for the years to come."
The overwhelming appeal can be partially accredited to the sheer affordability of artisan, organic food in a less stuffy atmosphere than a fancy city eatery. And with the growing number of locations and mid-day stops, food trucks are becoming almost as convenient and ever more tasty than a repetitive lunchtime run to your neighborhood Starbucks for a refrigerated sandwich.
"It's convenient and the food is good," says Sean, a street taco consumer. "The trucks are easy to find and the events are all well-documented."
After reading about an Off the Grid event in an issue of SF Weekly, he made his way to a Civic Center gathering and later happened to walk by a recent Off the Grid event at the McCoppin Hub just off Valencia Street. A current SOMA resident who moved here from Chicago, he feels that the mobile food presence of this city is unmatched.
Little Green Cyclo is a new addition to the local street food scene, operating for just under two months. With the goal of providing affordable, organic and authentic Vietnamese street food, Monica Wong, Quynh Nguyen, and Timmy Perez have formed a street food dream team with respective backgrounds in finance, cooking and graphic design. Together, they have created a website and eco-friendly food truck that operates in San Francisco on a daily basis and at Edgewood Eats and Moxsie Street Eats events in Palo Alto.
"There are lots of Vietnamese spots in the city, but we really wanted to offer good food that was healthier and organic," says Wong.
Wong's parents owned and operated the first Chinese restaurant in downtown Boston when she was younger, and though she built a career in finance, the culinary start-up bug inspired her to return to her roots. Wong and her partners sought out help from Cohen when they decided to launch their truck, based in South San Francisco, and the business grew from there.
Little Green Cyclo, who take their name from the French derivation of the word "pedi-cab," offer Vietnamese fare like Bahn Mi sandwiches, sweet potato fries, and tofu dishes.They use fresh, locally sourced ingredients picked up at the Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market. As important as an affordable plate is their commitment to overall tasty, nutritious food.
Coffee vendors are also taking advantage of the ground they can cover in the mobile market. Curbside Coffee operates out of a single truck and serves coffee, tea, and espresso drinks that are all sourced from local roasters. Started by Jordan Greene, formerly of Peet's Coffee, and his business partner, the mobile coffee shop serves local pastries from Christopher David Macarons and Sandbox Bakery. According to Greene, Curbside hopes to build an established morning location soon, likely somewhere in the Financial District. With a passion for the craft of quality coffee, Greene's simple mission is to deliver quick, quality coffee to the masses in a city where the coffee scene has become a mass of aesthetics and fancy coffee houses.
The mass consumption of street food could likely be because both the quality and the affordability of the food are hard to beat anywhere else in the city. $2.75 veggie tamales from El Norteno taco truck, $3 Filipino pork tacos from Senor Sisig, and $3 salted caramel or tiramisu cupcakes from Cupkates are but a few selections patrons can choose from at a single Off the Grid event, and leave full.
"Off the Grid has about 9,000 followers on Facebook right now, so marketing is almost done completely through the Internet," says Cohen. "We're targeting a more sophisticated food audience, and it all spreads from there."
This illustrates another key reason why this new breed of food pioneers has attained such recognition in sometimes just a matter of months. Aside from limited print advertisement and commercial exposure, blog activity and live feeds run by a few employees do the work of an entire marketing team. It is free and simple to use and those in the food industry are beginning to wise up to the ways in which their food and brand can reach a wider audience with just the click of a key.
For food truck businesses still in their early stages, an online presence is vital in building the customer base and taking advantage of the free marketing and advertising tools that the Internet and social sites offer. Both Little Green Cyclo and Curbside Coffee have active Facebook and Twitter accounts, through which communication to the public has been fundamental.
Both Wong and Greene agree that social networking is crucial for mobile businesses as it is often the key connector between the schedule of a consumer and the location of a vendor on any given day.
Even the Los Angeles Times has taken notice of the food revolution going on up North. As far back as a 2009 post, their travel blogger Susan Derby wrote that "...the two best ways you can liven up the San Francisco visitor experience are by taste-testing the city's varied edible offerings and by strolling about outdoors. Now you can perform both actions in one fell swoop by chasing around food carts."
Street food is quickly become just one more unique San Francisco characteristic, changing the food landscape one motor at a time.
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