Excitement about food trucks is rumbling through American cities like a convoy of eighteen-wheelers, but in Berkeley? Like most municipalities, the home of Alice Waters' Delicious Revolution is grappling with mobile vending laws that predate the street-food trend finding mainstream expression in shows like the Food Network's The Great Food Truck Race, rules that favor brick-and-mortar restaurants by slapping severe restrictions on taco trucks and lunch wagons. But with the pending launch of Off the Grid on North Shattuck early next month, Berkeley is about to gamble on the power of food trucks to revive the Gourmet Ghetto, a culinary landscape some younger diners consider a wasteland, slinging food that too often feels stultified and way too pricey.
If it works — if North Berkeley's weekly food-truck pod introduces a new demographic of university students and Twitter-happy millennials to the neighborhood that grandma Alice built — it'll be an experiment worthy of the name revolutionary.
Last week the Express broke the news online about Off the Grid's expansion to Berkeley. Working with the North Shattuck Association, the Gourmet Ghetto's merchant-funded economic development arm, organizer Matt Cohen convinced the city to approve a year-round Off the Grid event on Wednesday evenings, 4:30-9:30 p.m., on the North Shattuck spur near Rose, site of the Thursday farmers' market. At press time, things were in the final stages of permit review by Berkeley's Department of Environmental Health. (Target launch date: June 1, though a permitting delay could push it back to June 8.) It'll be Off the Grid's first expansion outside San Francisco.
Don't know Off the Grid? In June 2010, Cohen — a guy who'd launched a short-lived San Francisco ramen truck, then turned to consulting for street-food startups — successfully picked his way through the city's expensive and complex permitting process to mount a Friday-night mobile food party at Fort Mason Center in the Marina.
Cohen managed to put the zeitgeist on tap for a mostly twentysomething crowd of city dwellers eager to queue up for a taste of the street-food trend already defining young urban life in places like LA and Portland. And it didn't hurt that Cohen's partner at Fort Mason was La Cocina, the Mission District nonprofit that helps low-income women launch food businesses. Off the Grid had soul, and a heart. It quickly became a Friday phenomenon, even on foggy summer nights when wind lashed the hoodied kids standing around eating Filipino sisig tacos or pork belly-stuffed Taiwanese bao.
Cohen soon leveraged that success into three more food-truck events, convincing the city's Department of Recreation and Parks to allow weekly Off the Grids at Civic Center and in a corner of Golden Gate Park in Upper Haight.
These days Cohen organizes weekly or twice-weekly mobile food pods in half a dozen locations around the city, with more on the way. The original, at Fort Mason Center, remains the most popular, with crowds that Cohen says regularly exceed 10,000. And the launch of new mobile food businesses has kept pace with Off the Grid's rise — some three dozen trucks now operate in San Francisco, a roughly four-fold rise over 2009.
In less than a year, Cohen has quietly managed to refashion San Francisco's food landscape. That's nothing short of amazing for a city so densely packed with restaurants, businesses whose powerful lobbying arm — the Golden Gate Restaurant Association — had long painted mobile vendors as threats to their very existence.
Which brings us back to the Gourmet Ghetto. Heather Hensley, the North Shattuck Association's director, says Off the Grid became possible here only after the city agreed to what she calls a hybrid permit, allowing mobile vending only once a week, up for review after the first year. "The city's still having a hard time dealing with trucks licensed to go wherever they want," she said. Hensley says a dozen trucks are licensed to operate in North Berkeley, with no more than ten rolling on any one Wednesday (likely kickoff vendors include Hapa SF, Liba Falafel, CupKates, and The Taco Guys). That includes Cohen's own Off the Grid truck, used for occasional pop-ups by brick-and-mortar chefs, guys like Peter Levitt, owner of Saul's Restaurant & Delicatessen.
The North Shattuck Association is made up of some 150 local businesses, about 30 of which are restaurants or other food businesses. Hensley says some of them had to be convinced that Off the Grid isn't designed to suck customers away from them, but to open up the neighborhood to a whole new demographic.
"There's definitely a student population we're hoping to get more of," Hensley said. "But I think these events draw a wider audience, too, people interested in food, interested in supporting small startups — and just interested in experiencing the district, with a place to gather."
It's clear that Hensley and Off the Grid's supporters like Levitt have had to do something of a sales job on some merchants, in a neighborhood where longtime residents like things to stay pretty much the way they've been since the Seventies. One concession to the neighborhood: Off the Grid vendors will have to source at least some of their ingredients locally, and use as many organics as possible.
"It harkens back to the days of the pushcart," said Levitt. "Sure, food trucks are a hipster thing, but it also goes back to the way things were in the past. Off the Grid can be a continuation of the farmers' market, which the neighborhood loves. It can bring a concentration of demographics that we don't always see in the neighborhood — younger people, people walking or on bicycles." Levitt thinks Off the Grid could eventually attract as many as 3,000 to North Shattuck on Wednesday nights.
"When a small neighborhood like ours gets two, maybe three thousand people on foot, money can't buy that kind of advertising," Levitt said. "If the neighborhood has something else to offer, then those people will end up coming back."