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An Emergency Food Truck Network Has Sprung into Action in Wine Country

Off the Grid put its fleet of mobile vendors to work in the wake of disaster

Multiple Wildfires Destroy Homes, Threaten California Wine Country
Santa Rosa, October 9th.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Known mostly for organizing night markets and food truck corrals around the Bay Area, Off the Grid didn’t anticipate being called into action as an emergency services network. But when city officials in Santa Rosa put out a request for “licensed and available mobile food vendors” to help aid its fire relief efforts earlier this week, they might as well have put up a Bat Signal with Off the Grid’s logo on it.

The company provides infrastructure for dozens of weekly food events, creating regular spaces for its network of mobile vendors, food trucks, catering companies and partner restaurants to cook for hungry customers. Off the Grid’s ubiquitous presence throughout the regional street food scene gives it a deep roster of cooks and resources to call in the wake of a disaster. So, the company hit the ground running with two simultaneous support efforts this week: one that sends trucks to shelters or areas where there’s an immediate need, and another coordinating food donations from restaurants in San Francisco.

“What we are, fundamentally, is a platform,” Off the Grid founder and CEO Matt Cohen told Eaterby phone on Friday. “We connect chefs who cook with communities that want them.” In Santa Rosa on Thursday, that community was about 800 people in residential complexes without power or gas.

The relief workers in this case, were the people behind the wheel and working the stoves in trucks like Fruity Moto, Carribean Spices, Mai Thai Kitchen and Flavors of Ethiopia. Their efforts were completely funded by donations from the GoFundMe campaign that quickly reached its initial $10,000 goal earlier this week. Cohen estimated the first wave of vendors served more than 3,500 meals in their first 24 hours in the field, and the campaign goal has now been bumped up to $20,000.

“100% of what we raised is going into this effort,” Cohen said.

Off the Grid acts as a dispatcher; taking requests from emergency workers who know of areas in need of hot meals and then reaching out to vendor partners nearby. Each vendor is offered $7.50 per meal in compensation, which comes directly out of the fund. If no local vendors are available, the call goes out to a wider Bay Area circle who receive $125 for every 50 meals served. If a vendor chooses, they can also donate the meals themselves and the money goes back into the pool.

Closer to home, Off the Grid is taking on another logistical role, building a supply chain that starts in the kitchens of San Francisco and ends with meals in the hands of evacuees.

“Food availability isn’t really an issue at the moment,” Cohen said, recounting emergency workers’ stories of well-intentioned donations going bad before they could be delivered. To prevent waste on top of an already tragic situation, Off the Grid is establishing food drop-off locations with cold storage, coordinating delivery with refrigerated trucks and, finally, seeing that the food is distributed in “a healthy and responsible way.”

On Friday, food donations from the city arrived in Santa Rosa to help supply the Salvation Army’s distribution efforts at local shelters. A 50-foot bus, built out with a kitchen for catering events, gave the volunteers a clean space to work out of.

Current efforts will continue well into next week, Cohen said, and in the interest of transparency, they plan to keep updating the GoFundMe page with information about how the donations are being used. In the longer term, however, the company believes it is well prepared to fill the gap in the local food infrastructure for the next two to six weeks, doing its part to help insure everyone in the area is well-fed as they start returning home and working to rebuild.

In fact, the nimble, crowdfunded reaction has already attracted a corporate benefactor to help fund the Dunkirk-esque fleet of volunteers. Late Friday afternoon, Google announced it would partner with Off the Grid to bring another 25,000 meals to shelters in Napa and Sonoma counties over the next month.