2011 was a banner year for organizers of Off the Grid as the food cart events migrated to different locations in San Francisco and into other parts of the Bay Area as well. So what’s ahead for the traveling band of carts in 2012?

Off the Grid founder Matt Cohen said they plan on continuing to build on the success in 2011 by expanding in the city. “All of our markets outside of San Francisco were very successful. But the focus and core of our business will always be in San Francisco,” said Cohen. “We are focusing on having at least two more night markets and also a couple of more lunch spots around town.”

Operations have already expanded in 2012 with the start of the Off the Grid: Proxy at the Hayes Valley Proxy Project. Cohen said he sees adding a spot in the Financial District as well for lunch service.

The food truck and street scene have exploded over the last few years. Last year, San Francisco officials passed legislation that they hoped would streamline the process of starting a mobile food vending business. Cohen said results have been mixed since then. “Potential food vendors now have a clear process to go through when they want to start a business. They know that the money they put in to start will not just be wasting away; they have confidence in the process,” Cohen said. “But the process is a long one and there are still concerns with brick-and-mortar restaurants and where carts can park. So it’s still a bit of a work in progress.”

But that could change as soon as this year as San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener has legislation in the works that would allow food trucks to be able to park at both hospital and college campuses. “ The planning code currently bans food trucks and farmers markets on college and hospital campuses unless they are zoned commercial, which they rarely are,” Wiener said. “The legislation would allow food trucks and farmers markets on these locations. They wouldn’t be required to allow them, but would have the option if they so choose. Food trucks can add significant food diversity and choice and campuses should have the option to host them.”

Supervisor Wiener is also working with Cohen and other stakeholders (brick-and-mortar restaurants, food vendors, etc.) on improving the entire system. “I want to improve the permit system and balance the needs of food trucks and brick-and-mortar restaurants,” he said. “The system needs to be clearer. Right now, brick-and-mortar restaurants have concerns about over-concentration downtown and in Union Square. And food trucks have had permits appealed and rejected in a chaotic way. We want to move towards clearer and fairer rules for everyone.”

But perhaps the biggest roadblock for the expansion of food trucks is coming at the state level. Assemblyman Bill Monning of Carmel has proposed a bill, AB 1678, which would put restrictions on how close food trucks can park to schools (1,500 feet). Monning said the objective of the bill is to protect school kids from junk food that is sold on food trucks. “But this is an extremely broad bill and it is a slippery slope when there are different classes of food vendors,” said Cohen. “Is this going to affect trucks that are on both public and private property? And what about elementary schools, which are almost all closed campuses? I don’t think this bill would affect what we do with Off the Grid, but it would severely affect food trucks that park individually on streets.” Supervisor Wiener agrees and said the issue should be handled locally. “I oppose this bill. It would ban food trucks through most of San Francisco. This is a matter of local concern. And this one-size-fits-all approach is inappropriate,” Wiener said. “The bill is very suburban-focused and doesn’t account for dense urban areas. 1,500 feet in a city is a significant distance.”

AB 1678 is not expected to have a committee hearing until mid-March. But the ramifications if it is passed will greatly affect the food truck industry in the Bay Area.

Off the Grid: Fort Mason returns in March and most of the other events throughout San Francisco are already underway.



Main Photo Credit: Off the Grid SF