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Off The Grid's Matt Cohen Talks Street Food: Part I

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Surveying the scene at the newest edition of Off the Grid: UN Plaza
Surveying the scene at the newest edition of Off the Grid: UN Plaza

[Photo: Jennifer Yin]

In June, SF Cart Project founder Matt Cohen pulled off his first Off the Grid street food night market in Fort Mason. It came -- after about a year of arm wrestling with The City -- with live music, beer and wine and over ten of SF's hottest food trucks. People came out in droves. The market continued to operate weekly, took on more trucks. And now, just about four months later, Cohen has watched his well-attended regularly occurring Off the Grid events roll out in four other neighborhoods. He doesn't plan on stopping. Here's the first half of our lengthy chat about the past, present and future of street food in the Bay Area.

Since you founded the Street Cart Project years ago, you've truly become a local champion for the street cart movement here in SF. When did you notice more folks starting to express an interest in starting a food truck? After the explosion of DYI carts in the spring of 2009, the natural extension of many of those carts is to move to trucks. The financials of trucks scale much better for prepared food than on a cart. As a result, we've seen a lot of new businesses start, or transition, to trucks. What would you say was the catalyst? Are there any trucks out there that you think other folks see as an example? Julia from Seoul on Wheels is definitely a trail blazer. She was out there doing Korean fusion on a truck a full year before Kogi. I think that William Pilz from Hapa SF is much more the type of entrepreneur entering the space at the moment; people with extensive culinary backgrounds that are looking to start their own business affordably.

You've now rolled out Off the Grid in the Haight, the Mission, the Civic Center and most recently in UN Plaza. Are they all going to be as big as the one in Fort Mason eventually? The intent of each of the markets is to make an atmosphere that is appealing and unique from our other markets so that people are interested in visiting them all. In the Haight we do that with flowers and (eventually) books, at Civic Center we do that with an hour of live music at lunch, at McCoppin it's through extended hours and at UN Plaza we're doing it through its integration with the art market. Fort Mason Center will always stay our largest event in the city; it has the most vendors, it has a bar and it has continuous live music throughout the event. And how many trucks big exactly is the Fort Mason Off the Grid now? We vary between 11 and 14 trucks depending on how many tented vendors we have. We have capped the event at 25 vendors total for the rest of the season.

It's still harder to bring a street cart from idea to execution in San Francisco than many other cities. Is there any movement in the city government to make things easier? Yes, it is difficult. But there is some momentum to address many issues that have been affecting growth in SF for quite some time; reducing the overlap in responsibility, making the Planning Department responsible for enforcement only, decreasing costs, decreasing the legal distances between vendors. Hopefully we'll see some legislation happen before the end of the year.

What would be your first word of advice to any dreamer hoping to start a truck? Start with a location before you buy your truck. You can have the coolest truck in the city, but if you don't have anywhere to sell from you are going to go out of business. And is warming up to Facebook and Twitter crucial to cart and or truck success these days? Yes. No question. Social media is about connection to customers. It has fueled street food's success and its the primary marketing outlet for nearly every truck and cart in the Bay.

Since so many carts are operating illegally on the streets and getting away with it, why not just go that route? (Besides the obvious morality reasons.) Can you operate illegally for awhile and do ok? Sure. But that's not the basis for a sound, long term business. It's actually really difficult and stressful to operate illegally with a full time street food business. Stability and consistency are the two most important factors for customers finding you and enjoying their experience. Operating illegally risks both of those principals. What percentage of carts out there would you say are operating illegally. And where are they focused. Mostly the Mission? Most of the carts out there are selling illegally. I'd say the majority work in the Mission and SoMa. A good rule of thumb to know about carts is that there is no mechanism in SF to allow carts to move around and sell food. So if the vendor you're buying food from is walking around, pushing a cart, or moving then they're likely doing it informally.

Are there any trucks that only operate at Off the Grid? If so, which ones? Off the Grid is meant to add to existing truck schedules, not replace them. Every Off the Grid vendor has additional locations where they sell. Would you be open to letting food carts into the mix, or is it strictly a truck party? We are and have. King of Currywurst has attended our Haight location. The requirement for participating isn't about truck vs. cart. The line is: do you have a legal SF Health Permit? That's why we have so many trucks. Purchasing a legal cart that you can cook raw meat on can easily cost $15,000 or more. When you can buy a truck that allows you more flexibility, more shelter, the ability to sell more volume, and easier maneuverability (legal carts all need to be towed) many people opt to spend the additional money on a truck.

Come to think of it, why don't we have any ice cream trucks in this city? Mister Softee is omnipresent in NY! We're going to be getting two in town very soon: Twirl and Dip will be doing soft serve, and Three Twins Ice Cream is going to be launching a bus as well.

Do the people that run these carts make enough money to support themselves or do most of them have other jobs as well? I'd say that very few of the informal cart operators do it full time. Roger from Soul Cocina does a great deal of catering out of La Victoria. Brian from the Magic Curry Kart has begun selling his sauce out of Whole Foods. But for the majority of carts, I'd say it is a secondary source of income. The trucks are a different story. Trucks are very much a full time commitment, and the economics of running an owner-operated truck can bring in some decent money.

What do you think about that crazy Chairman Bao controversy that went down a bit ago? Staying out of that one.

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