It was supposed to be a banner year for Off the Grid. Heading into March 2020, the Bay Area’s most prolific organizer of food truck events was poised to have its “biggest year ever,” says founder Matt Cohen: Off the Grid’s flagship Fort Mason event, where thousands of street food lovers congregated each week, was entering its 10th year; the company had an ambitious slate of large-scale catering gigs booked.
We all know what happened next: COVID-19 hit the Bay Area, putting the kibosh on all large-scale gatherings on literally the same night the Fort Mason market kicked off its 2020 season. In short order, the company shut down more than a dozen of its weekly mobile food events, putting nearly all of them on indefinite hiatus. By Cohen’s estimate, it lost “a couple of million dollars” in catering revenue that first week alone.
Needless to say, it was a tough month for the mobile food behemoth. But then the weeks ticked by, and even as restrictions eased and restaurants around the Bay opened up their patios for outdoor dining, Off the Grid mostly stayed quiet. Not only did its largest events remain closed, but the company also never opened the vast majority of its smaller mobile food gatherings — the ones where four or five food trucks might congregate, in contrast to the 30-plus vendors that you would find at Fort Mason on any given week.
To date, only three of Off the Grid’s smaller food truck hubs are open in any capacity, for takeout only — one at the Serramonte shopping plaza in Daly City, one in Alameda, and a relatively new one set up outside one of the terminals at SFO. The rest of the year is likely to look much the same: Cohen tells Eater SF that Off the Grid is unlikely to relaunch any of its other food truck gatherings until the end of 2021 at the earliest. This means, of course, that another summer will pass with no massive Friday-night extravaganzas at Fort Mason. No Sunday-afternoon street food picnics at the Presidio. And, for the most part, no smaller lunchtime food truck clusters.
That’s tough news for the 180-some-odd food trucks and other vendors — “creators,” in Off the Grid parlance — that, in many cases, have depended on these events for the majority of their income. Meanwhile, Off the Grid has laid off about 50 employees from what had been a 100-person staff charged with overseeing the company’s various markets and other events. And Bay Area diners now have far fewer places they can go to support their favorite mobile barbecue operation or fusion taco truck.
This isn’t to say that Off the Grid hasn’t been active in other ways during the pandemic. Mostly, the company has shifted its focus to emergency relief, facilitating the delivery of hundreds of thousands of meals to high-risk elders and other people in need in San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, and beyond. “The food landscape has dramatically changed,” Cohen says. “How can we play a role in that?” By paying them to prepare those meals, Off the Grid has helped keep afloat a small number of the food trucks and pop-ups that normally populate its events.
Still, it’s hard to overstate the impact the absence of Off the Grid’s usual slate of events has had on the local food truck community. The irony is that the premium that COVID-19 has placed on large outdoor spaces would seem to make Off the Grid’s food truck events perfectly suited for this particular moment. After all, during the summer and fall months, the Bay Area saw tremendous demand for outdoor dining and, in general, for spaces where some form of socializing was allowed. A smaller Off the Grid event — say, three or four trucks and a handful of socially distanced tables — almost seems like it could be the platonic ideal of pandemic-era “dining out.”
But according to Cohen, this was never really a viable option. In large part, that’s because of the way the company had shifted its focus over the past several years: away from neighborhood-focused events held in more residential neighborhoods. Apart from its marquee weekend events, the company has focused almost all of its efforts on food truck hubs providing lunch for office workers in San Francisco’s downtown areas — over time, those proved to be much more reliable sources of business for the trucks that participated, Cohen says: “About 75 percent of our public market spaces were serving business lunch needs more so than suburban market needs.”
With office workers continuing to work from home for the foreseeable future, those markets were essentially dead in the water. And because Off the Grid is such a power player within the Bay Area mobile food landscape, its virtual disappearance from the scene has had massive ripple effects for local food trucks and pop-up vendors, many of whom were forced to rebuild their entire business model from scratch in order to survive.
Even the most popular trucks have had a hard time adapting to pandemic constraints. Miguel Escobedo of Al Pastor Papi, a Mexico City-style taco truck with more than 20,000 followers on Instagram, estimates that prior to the pandemic, Off the Grid appearances constituted as much as 75 to 80 percent of his business in any given week — a sum he has to try to make up by cobbling together various collaborations with breweries and dispensaries.
Escobedo counts himself among the lucky ones. Because of his truck’s robust social media following, Al Pastor Papi’s sales have finally gone back to pre-pandemic levels. “We would be like, ‘Hey, we’re going to be in this gym parking lot in Redwood City,’” he says — and customers would come out. But for trucks that don’t have that same kind of name recognition, it’s a different story.
“Only a small amount of trucks could survive on their own when Off the Grid had such a stranglehold on the scene,” Escobedo says.
Indeed, in some cases, Off the Grid’s prolonged absence was the impetus for some mobile food businesses to abandon their trucks altogether. That was the case for Igor Teplitsky and Anna Partizanka, who have stowed away their Russian food truck, Borsch Mobile, for the entirety of the pandemic. Teplitsky says they’ve still been working with Off the Grid to provide meals for vulnerable individuals through San Francisco’s Great Plates program — a project that’s helped keep the business alive. But as for the truck, Teplitsky says, “Until everything goes back to normal, that scene is dead.”
According to Peter Ly, whose truck Bombzies specializes in Asian rice bowls, whether or not Off the Grid even opens its markets is a moot point — the customer demand for that kind of experience just isn’t there. “It’s just blow after blow,” he says of the repeated shutdowns of outdoor dining. “How do you ramp back up after each of those? The fear gets stronger, and people’s desire to go out and socialize gets dwarfed.”
It’s worth noting, however, that while Off the Grid’s markets have gone on hiatus, at least one competing business has kept its food truck hub going during the pandemic. Carlos Muera owns Mission Bay’s Spark Social SF and the SoMa StrEat Food Park — about 100,000 square feet of outdoor space between the two, with plentiful outdoor seating and a network of 50 to 100 food trucks that rotate through four or five spots in the parks, plus another 15 that are embedded there permanently. Though these food truck parks, too, shifted to takeout only during the recent lockdown, for much of shelter in place, they’ve been some of the only places in San Francisco where people could feel like they were participating in a social gathering of sorts — but with enough space and separation outdoors to feel safe.
“The main difference between us and Off the Grid is we’re an actual place,” Muera says. “We’re basically a community hub, which is why we’ve been able to stay open.”
Despite the challenges of the pandemic, Muera is bullish on the long-term prospects of both his business and Off the Grid. After all, he says, “the future is outdoors.”
Cohen stresses that Off the Grid’s “markets” are the thing that’s on hold for the rest of the year — a term the company has always used to refer to a certain kind of lively communal event, complete with music, entertainment, and large numbers of people mingling. Those are what’s likely off the table for the rest of 2021. After all, Cohen says, even if it were safe to launch the Fort Mason event by this summer, the economics of that market — with hundreds of thousands of dollars in up-front costs — mean that it wouldn’t be financially viable to do it if they could only run the event eight times the entire year.
That said, it’s likely that the company will look to launch additional locations in more residential areas once we head into the spring and summer — not “markets,” but “food spots,” like the ones currently running in Alameda, Serramonte, and SFO, that function only as takeout pickup locations for a small number of trucks. One advantage of these more modest locations is that participating trucks only have to pay a flat fee, instead of giving the 10 percent cut of their sales that Off the Grid typically charges on top of the fee.
Cohen says he recognizes that some trucks have had success finding their own spots to operate during these past 10 months — and, in some cases, might not need or want Off the Grid to insert itself as a middleman. So, the company has introduced an “Off the Grid Experience” app to help customers simply find where these trucks are stationed, even if it isn’t at an Off the Grid-affiliated event.
Cohen says one of the remarkable things about the last 10 months was seeing how, even absent of his company’s marquee events, outdoor dining blossomed in the Bay Area — in parklets, on sidewalks, and outside of bars and breweries: “There was this realization that the entire city had become Off the Grid, in a way.”
For food truck operators like Al Pastor Papi’s Miguel Escobedo, on the other hand, the pandemic has offered a valuable lesson. Even as he looks forward to setting up shop at Fort Mason once again sometime in the future, Escobedo says he’s learned that he needs to have more balance in his business — that he can’t have Off the Grid account for a full three-quarters of his revenue.
“What will San Francisco even look like [after the pandemic]? I don’t think we’ve seen what the final impact will be,” Escobedo says. “But you can’t have so much control of your business’s success be dependent on another business.”