Off the Grid and onto your plate: The rise of mobile food trucks

Under Creative Commons License from Gary Stevens.

The Bay Area is known for being home to some serious “foodies.” So it’s no surprise that among the five-star restaurants that compete for notoriety, some chefs have taken their business to the streets.

Gourmet food trucks are now commonplace in San Francisco, thanks in large part to Off the Grid, a roving food market where you can eat everything from shaved ice to vegan currywurst – right out of a truck.

So what is it about this kind of street food that gets people waiting in lines down the block? KALW’s Sara Bernard went to the East Bay launch of Off the Grid to check it out.

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SARA BERNARD: The most important thing every Bay Area resident should know about Off the Grid is don’t show up starving. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE CUSTOMER 1: I wanted to come last week but I couldn’t but I heard the lines were ridiculous! Things were sold out by 6:30 or something.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE CUSTOMER 2: Yeah, I gotta say I’m glad I’m not starving. I’m hungry, but not starving.

You might have to develop a game plan, like these Berkeley residents:

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE CUSTOMER 3: We have friends in all the other lines and we’re going to order stuff for each other and try everything.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE CUSTOMER: Work smarter, not harder.

Off the Grid makes it easy to strategize. The trucks show up in a different neighborhood every day, so chances are that you can always get a fix when you need one. But is it really worth fighting the crowds?

CHRIS RESTIVO: Oh my god, that is totally worth waiting in line for.

East Bay resident Chris Restivo sure thinks so.

RESTIVO: It might be the best fish taco I’ve ever ha I mean, sriracha mayo? Come on.

ALICE MOON: The reason I like it is because I always like having a lot of options.

That’s UC Berkeley student Alice Moon.

MOON: Sometimes the prices are kind of steep for the things that you get, but you get to have the variety, especially if you come with a couple friends or something, you can split some items and then get a variety of things.

HEATHER HENSLEY: I’m Heather Hensley, I’m the executive director of the North Shattuck Association.

Henlsey’s group is based in North Berkeley’s gourmet ghetto, home to foodie havens like Chez Panisse. She says Off the Grid is a natural fit.

HENSLEY: You know, I think people like being outside, and they like it being kind of a free-form thing, where they can meet up with folks and meet people in line. It’s kind of like a big street party.

Off the Grid founder Matt Cohen says he drew his inspiration for the mobile market from street food in other parts of the world.

MATT COHEN: The reason why I got involved in the street food business was living abroad, experiencing great street food, and wanting to bring that back to the United States in a meaningful way. And do it in a way that would be marketable and appealing to people in the U.S. A Thai street market is fantastic for people who’ve been there, but it’s very much that context. How can we do it here so that it’s approachable and relatable to the people?

Cohen also says the economic downturn hit just as the use of social media was on the rise, creating perfect conditions for a mobile food movement.

COHEN: It’s very expensive to start a restaurant. So, for maybe half the cost of starting a restaurant, a talented chef, who maybe can’t scratch together enough money to open a brick and mortar restaurant, can start a food truck, get experience with a limited menu, do something really great, get a name, maybe open two trucks, a brick and mortar, whatever. That’s the food truck boom in a nutshell.

The first food trucks to pop up in the Bay Area served tacos – they’re cheap, quick, and generally considered “fast food.” But even though taco trucks are probably still the most common, a lot has changed in the past few years. Again, East Bay resident Chris Restivo.

RESTIVO: Trucks, the whole truck thing, is always associated with a lower quality of food. And the fact that it’s been revolutionized and has evolved into this gourmet thing is part of the allure of it. They have three or four items a piece, but they do all of them really, really well.

The more popular the movement gets, the more challenges it faces. Getting permits can be a headache, and local businesses often balk at the prospect of hip new competition.

But not all business owners oppose the trucks. In fact, Saul’s Deli co-owner Peter Levitt says getting Off the Grid to come to North Berkeley was his idea. Well … kind of.

PETER LEVITT: No comment! I don’t want to be guilty, I don’t want to be blamed if it doesn’t work out. No, I thought it would be great for the neighborhood.

Again, founder Matt Cohen.

COHEN: It brings a huge amount of people to one space, so it has positive community benefits. And then we leave – so it’s not like we’re affecting restaurants’ bottom line every day. That’s the appealing thing to communities.

So, what dish caught my eye? Roast pork folded in a rosemary waffle. Yes, I eat it on a paper plate, on the sidewalk, surrounded by the buzz of truck engines and chattering crowds. But each bite is straight-up gourmet heaven. And the spirit of the people gathered here is not something you can find at any old five-star restaurant. Again, Peter Levitt.

LEVITT: Even though we all have to be in a tent or behind a truck in stainless steel boxes on wheels or whatever, it still works for people somewhere deep in the soul – to gather on the street and eat. It’s nice! This was asphalt three hours ago, and now it’s like a park, filled with people.

…Very well-fed people.

In Berkeley, I’m Sara Bernard for Crosscurrents.

Off the Grid officially expanded to the East Bay, with gatherings in North Berkeley on Wednesdays from 5 to 9pm. For locations, click here.