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Off the Grid

The Latest in SF Street Food

While it's not new to the rest of the world, street food is a relatively new phenomenon in the United States. With an army of talented culinary entrepreneurs, and a public who supports innovative food, San Francisco is the ideal city for street food in America, but do we have the foot traffic to keep the food-truck scene alive?

Matt Cohen decided to help make this trend sustainable by creating Off the Grid, a pop-up street food mecca that brings together vendors and consumers. After early success at Fort Mason, the popular event can now be found in three other San Francisco neighborhoods— the Haight, Mission, and Civic Center.

Among the regular vendors at the Fort Mason location, don't miss the Pork Sisig Over Rice at Hapa SF, Duck Tacos from Kung Fu Tacos, and Kimchi Fried Rice from Seoul on Wheels. On October 8th, Off the Grid Fort Mason will have extended hours (noon to 9pm) in celebration of Fleet Week.

But first, check out our interview with, Matt Cohen, discussing Off the Grid and the future of SF street food.

SF Station (SFS): How did you get involved in Street Food?

Matt Cohen (MC): I used to live in Japan where it's part of everyday life. Years later I read an article in Inc. Magazine about gourmet ice cream trucks and I remembered this great little ramen truck that drove through my town late at night in Japan. I thought, “Wow, I could start a gourmet, high-end ramen truck and bring it to the U.S.” I quit my job as hotel manager of The W and spent six months trying to get permits.

SFS: What was that process like? Are permits easy to get?

MC: It was really challenging. I literally had to go down to the police department a couple of times a week and try to understand what was going on with my permit.

SFS: Did you end up getting your permit?

MC: After 6 months, it was clear that city wasn't going to let me run a late-night truck. SFPD, in general, doesn't permit mobile trucks late at night.

SFS: So what then?

MC: I had all of this experience now so I went into consulting. Nothing was here yet though ... Julia [Yoon] was here with Seoul on Wheels, but it was way before all of the food truck hype.

SFS: How and when did you start to see that hype invade SF?

MC: The big change for SF happened with the guerilla carts in March 2009. Tons of people started contacting me. It was very DIY— time rich and cash poor. No one was looking to hire a consultant, but I wanted to provide some sort of service so I launched the SF Cart Project.

SFS: How did Off the Grid launch off from the SF Cart Project?

MC: Locations became a problem and trucks didn't know where to go at night. Monday through Friday lunch is the core for any truck, but there weren't consistent dinner opportunities, so I thought about creating one. That became Off the Grid.

SFS: Was that process more or less difficult than getting a food truck permit?

MC: We started looking for places, and because it's on federal property and they were interested in supporting us, the permits for Fort Mason came through faster than anywhere else. It's still the location where we can be the most flexible and have a bar, tents, trucks, and live music. The other locations can only have permitted trucks.

SFS: Did everything turn out to be what you had in mind?

MC: The inspiration came from late-night street food markets in Japan. After you go drinking [in Japan] you go eat at these tents. They are sort of confined and you can really feel the energy of the place. It feels like you're in an alley, just on the street, and we have that with Off the Grid, too. In the first six weeks we grew by 50 percent each week and now we're in four locations: Fort Mason, Haight Street, Civic Center, and McCoppin Hub. The Fort Mason location is ending on November 18th because it is the most exposed to weather, but it'll be back in the spring.

SFS: How do you select which trucks to set up at each location?

MC: I work with almost every truck in the city. The amount of trucks in the City has basically doubled since we started. We have a core of 12 vendors who come every week, another eight to ten that rotate, and always a couple new guys to keep it interesting.

SFS: What's the best way to experience Off the Grid?

MC: We encourage community and spending some time outside. Come with a group of friends, get a drink, and relax. You'll wait in some lines, but break up and get food from a couple different places and share. Start conversations with people walking by and ask them what they're eating. It's an evening of eating. It's great for families, too. The kids can be loud!

SFS: Do you see street food in the Bay Area as a trend or something that's here to stay?

MC: I think it's a trend, and it's here to stay. I think there has been a progression from something that was sort of DIY and not full time, to something that is more professional and refined. In SF in particular, we have a lot of culinary talent — line cooks and sous chefs that have a hard time finding money to open a restaurant, but could afford to start a truck. That's where a lot of growth will happen.

SFS: What new trucks would you like to see?

MC: A grilled cheese truck, pizza truck, hamburgers — I think the best trucks are the ones that understand you can only serve a couple of things, but do them really well and with an interesting twist.

Off the Grid
Upper Haight: Stanyan Street at Waller Street; Thursdays, 4pm to 8:30pm

Fort Mason Center; Fridays, 5pm to 9pm

Civic Center Plaza; Fridays 11am to 2:30pm

McCoppin Hub at Valencia, Saturdays 11am to 4pm and 5pm to 10pm