Street food fans in the East Bay have looked longingly across the bridge (and sometimes even crossed it) at the thriving food truck scene now serving six San Francisco locations, thanks to Off the Grid, the weekly mobile food meet ups conceived by Matt Cohen. (See this previous BAB story on the evolution of Off the Grid.)
Now comes news that starting in June, Berkeley and Oakland residents hungry for their own pavement cuisine parties will have similar events tailored to the flavor of their respective communities.
In Berkeley, Off the Grid is partnering with the North Shattuck Association, a merchants group, to launch its first franchise outside SF. The event is slated to start June 1, permit approval pending, in Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto, which has a long history as the epicenter of a delicious revolution but could use some fresh culinary blood to draw a younger crowd. Eight mobile food folks will sell their street eats at the intersection of Shattuck and Rose; core vendors dishing up chow each week include Liba (falafel with a twist), Hapa SF (mod Filipino grub), The Taco Guys (self explanatory), and Cupkates (ditto). In the mix the first night as part of a regularly rotating trio: Skylight Snowballs (sweet, slushy treats), 510 Burger, and Fins on the Hoof (surf and turf).
When word first got out on the local site Berkeleyside revealing which street vendors were planning to set up shop in this town, more than a thousand (presumably) local residents responded with a thumbs up on Facebook and the news generated the most cohesive comment thread in, perhaps, that site's short life. (Berkeley residents are known for their strong, frequently differing, opinions. This writer knows because -- full disclosure -- she pens a Friday food post on Berkeleyside.)
No prize for guessing that Berkeley's Off the Grid will feature local, sustainable, and, as much as possible, organic food, in keeping with this city's prevailing food philosophy. No high fructose corn syrup, genetically modified corn, or factory-farmed meat from these roaming restaurants, which use recyclable and compostable materials to deliver their dishes. In addition, one truck (courtesy of Cohen) will serve as a venue to showcase the culinary creations of chefs from the immediate area. First up: Peter Levitt, co-owner of Saul's deli.
The event, slated to be held on Wednesdays in a space already reserved for farmers' market vendors on Thursdays, marks something of a turnaround in this town, which in the past has not been particularly food truck-friendly. Heather Hensley, executive director of the North Shattuck Association, who submitted a proposal to the city in conjunction with Off the Grid, emphasized the controlled event environment (and local merchant approval) as key to getting the city on board, a sentiment echoed by Dave Fogerty from Berkeley's Office of Economic Development.
Hensley sees cross-promotional opportunities for local venues -- including music at nearby Cheese Board Pizzeria and Mint Leaf and drink specials (no alcohol is allowed at Berkeley's Off the Grid event) at participating restaurants. Cohen, who says he's exploring expanding into other East Bay locations, stresses that Off the Grid strives to preserve and build community, while offering affordable, creative, and ethnically-diverse street eats.
Most brick-and-mortar businesses are on board. "Why wouldn't I want a thousand or so people walking past Saul's?" asks co-owner Levitt, whose restrooms will be available for public use during the event, as they are during farmers' market hours (the restaurant is paid for providing such services). "Some of those people may stop in for a beer or come in for some food, either that night or in the future. It's a win-win for me. Unless, of course, Off the Grid starts selling matzo balls." Levitt knows that's not going to happen, since he's involved in helping shape the event so it complements food options already on offer in the area.
Even Pat Powell, who runs the cupcake shop Love at First Bite, doesn't see the weekly presence of CupKates as competition, although her business is open until 6p.m., an hour after Off the Grid starts. "Any event that brings people into the neighborhood is a positive thing in my mind," she says.
But Gregoire Jacquet, who runs Gregoire, named one of the top takeout spots in the Bay Area by San Francisco magazine, is more wary of the new event. "It will bring people into the neighborhood, but they're coming to eat the street food," Jacquet says. Still, he thinks it's worth giving it a go, though he would have preferred a monthly, not weekly, model. "If it works out well for everyone then it should keep going but if it negatively impacts existing food businesses then we should shut it down," adds Jacquet, who notes that it goes against the Buy Local Berkeley campaign, since most of the trucks hail from outside the area.
For their part, street truck purveyors such as Gail Lillian of Liba are delighted to have another venue (in her case close to home and her commercial kitchen) to provide the public gourmet meals on wheels.
Over in Oakland, Bites on Broadway kicks off on Friday, June 10 on the plaza in front of Oakland Technical High School. The food pod party is the brainchild of longtime East Bay events organizer Karen Hester (Temescal and Rockridge street fairs) and food truck owner and advocate Elizabeth August of Guerrilla Grub, which cooks up healthy comfort food. August is a member of Oakland Food Policy Council's mobile food vendors task force and recently formed the Oakland Food Truck Collective.
Most of the vendors at this new location, held on private property, thus bypassing city rules that prohibit mobile food carts from gathering in public places other than the Fruitvale, (though the city is currently reviewing its mobile food codes), are Oakland based. The menu includes a rotating band of pavement cuisine peddlers, including Fist of Flour (wood-fired pizza), Vesta Flatbread (Mediterranean-inspired sandwiches), Boffo Cart (panini, calzones, and such), Guerrilla Grub, Go Streatery (urban peasant food like crispy fava bean crepe) and the peddle-powered El Taco Bike. August, who organizes a mobile food contingent for Oakland's monthly Art Murmur, sees the event as an opportunity to showcase homegrown street food talent.
The family-friendly night, which includes live music and lawn games, has been embraced by the school's PTA, which hopes that down the road food trucks might offer students at Oakland Tech, an open campus, an affordable, healthy alternative to the nearby fast food joints currently frequented by students, says Hester. "We purposefully picked this stretch of Broadway, which is pretty bleak and doesn't have any brick-and-mortar restaurants in the vicinity," she adds. "It's a blighted neighborhood and we'd like to help revitalize this boulevard, which is the gateway to downtown Oakland."
Off The Grid's Cohen is considering sites in other Berkeley and Oakland locations where local stakeholders want to partner with his organization. While Hester thinks there's room for more food hub happenings, she'd prefer to see them powered by people from the immediate community.
"Bites on Broadway grew organically, out of something that is already happening in Oakland, so it's authentic. There's a lot of Oakland pride here. I'd like to see similar community-driven pods pop up in other neighborhoods."
Time will tell if there's a big enough appetite in the East Bay to sustain these recurring street food events. But if the number of new mobile food trucks buzzing around the Bay Area is any indication, residents are ravenous for mobile food fare.