Empire of Nom Nom

Carolyn Alburger | December 2, 2013 | Story Restaurants

To drop in to Off the Grid’s Picnic at the Presidio on any given Sunday is to feel as if you’ve landed in the middle of Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. But in this 21st-century version of bourgeois bonhomie, the people are thronging brightly painted trucks, patiently waiting in long lines to purchase lamb kati rolls, pulled pork sandwiches, and Nutella crème brûlée. In place of Seurat’s buttoned-up women in bonnets and bustles, the grassy slopes are dotted with louche twentysomethings in skinny jeans, lazing about and dreaming of quitting their day job at Pinterest to retrofit a vintage delivery truck and start peddling their family’s souvlaki or Mom’s famous grits. In many ways, this sunny scene—and the burgeoning industry that underlies it—has become the most accessible of San Francisco foodie fantasies.

This little slice of utopia is fueled not only by low overhead, modest capital outlay, and punishing hours, but also by the undeniable cool factor of starting a food truck of one’s own. There are now well over 250 mobile food vendors in the Bay Area, each one a distillation of someone’s edible fantasy. And more than half of these dreams have been enabled—and monetized—by one man: Matt Cohen.

Equal parts patron, landlord, mentor, boss, and visionary, the founder of Off the Grid (OTG) is the defacto godfather of the Bay Area food truck scene. Talk to one of his more successful vendors—a bao maker, say, who pulls in nearly $3,000 per eight hour shift—and you’ll hear nothing but nice things about Cohen. But ask another who’s barely scraping by slinging fried fluffernutters— maybe one whose truck Cohen bumped out of a profitable OTG market for the sake of “truck diversity”—and you get a different story. Cohen’s near monopoly on the business, his dual role as both entrepreneur and crafter of the city permit laws that govern his business, and the revenues his company takes in don’t sit well with every food trucker.

Matt Cohen does not look like a powerhouse who has City Hall supervisors on speed dial and is responsible for one of the most groundbreaking street food phenomena in the United States. With his balding head and soft edges, the 34-year-old looks more like your everyday dude than like a capitalist kingpin.

Born in Los Angeles, Cohen was a wandering type who kicked off postcollegiate life with a stint teaching ESL in Karatsu, Japan. Three years later, drawn to San Francisco by a potential foreign affairs job, he landed in the guest services department at W Hotels. After rising through the ranks for several years, he decided to try something new. So, in 2007—what could be considered the dawn of the local street truck movement—he did what so many romantics do today: He decided to launch a ramen truck.

The first thing Cohen had to do was decipher the city’s arcane process for permitting and operating a mobile food business. “There was no information online at all about how to run a food truck in San Francisco,” he recalls. “Permitting was controlled through the SFPD, particularly through one man who was on disability and was only in the office a week at a time, like once a month. It took six months of stalking him to find out what the rules and legislation were.”

Having mastered the bureaucracy, Cohen became a facilitator for other budding street food entrepreneurs, including the Crème Brûlée Cart, Seoul on Wheels, and El Huarache Loco. Ultimately, he ditched the ramen truck idea for a far more lucrative business: creating and running his own food truck empire.

The seeds of OTG were planted in 2008, when Cohen met a woman named Annemarie Brown at a brewpub. Fueled by foamy pints of Proving Ground IPA, the two got to talking about their foodie passions. Just under two years later (with Brown now the operations director of La Cocina, a Mission-based food-business incubator), they collaborated to launch the first Off the Grid in the Fort Mason Center parking lot with a scant 10 vendors. Cohen handled all the marketing and vendor relations for the event, for free.

Cohen soon became the city’s go-to food truck man. The mayor’s Offices of Financial Development and Small Business asked him to join head honchos from industry groups like the Golden Gate Restaurant Association (GGRA) and the Building Owners and Managers Association to create better policies governing food trucks. By the end of 2010, the group had moved the street food permitting process from the San Francisco Police Department to the Department of Public Works. As Cohen puts it, “It was a move from an orientation of enforcement to facilitation.”

Thanks in part to Cohen, the city’s permitting process became more transparent, and more parking spaces became available for food trucks. At the same time, the number of aspiring food truck operators— many of them recession casualties or young cooks hoping to bypass the arduous climb to traditional chefdom—soared. Over the past three years, the San Francisco food truck population has nearly tripled. Vehicles like Liba Falafel, Curry Up Now, and Hapa SF were all created by entrepreneurs convinced that the smaller financial commitment of a truck was a good move in an economically dismal time. Starting a food truck costs an average of about $60,000, a fraction of the outlay required to open a restaurant. And the average truck employs about 5 to 10 people, with none of the front-ofhouse service and kitchen staff hierarchy that come with a traditional brick-and-mortar eatery. On a good day, a food truck can bring in upwards of $4,000; on a bad day, $1,000. And if it’s a food truck at OTG, Cohen gets a piece of the action.

In only about three years, Cohen has expanded his business to the point that joining with it has become a critical element of almost every mobile food seller’s business plan. Today, the Fort Mason truck party draws 32 vendors and up to 8,000 customers to the parking lot every Friday during its season. Off the Grid has 25—and counting—Bay Area locations. Cohen has a staff of roughly 37 people who help him manage the rainbow-colored tapestries of food trucks, carts, and stalls that fill empty lots and city parks from Larkspur to Hayward. In July, OTG launched an app that provides users with up-to-the-minute intel on where every truck in its network is parked, along with user reviews and a guide to which bars and entertainment outlets are nearby. “We’ve gotten big,” Cohen says. “This year we bought a forklift.”

Cohen charges $50 to $100 per vending vehicle that parks at an Off the Grid market, and he takes 10 percent of pretax gross sales. It is this economic model, combined with Cohen’s insider role at City Hall, that has made him a revolutionary—if divisive—figure on the food truck scene. While restaurants have groups like the GGRA to liaise with government officials on their behalf, food trucks only have Matt Cohen. Whether intentionally or inadvertently, he has become the young industry’s dominant figure.

Page two: "It’s like the mafia of food trucks."

Last year, District 8 supervisor Scott Weiner called on Cohen to help iron out the city’s mobile food facility permitting ordinance—a proposal prompted by restaurateurs unhappy with the increasing incursions of food trucks onto their prized turf. Some Off the Grid participants worried that their leader, still largely a political neophyte, would be steamrolled. In June, Weiner’s amendment passed, mandating a 75-foot buffer between any food truck and an existing restaurant. Though the law threw food truckers some bones (they can now park in hospital lots and closer to public schools than previously allowed), it was seen by some as a crushing loss. The buffer, they say, essentially prevents them from parking in high-density neighborhoods like the financial district—which is exactly where every food truck wants to be.

Cohen’s role as policy maker is controversial. To call him a “critical voice” for food trucks, as Weiner did, is laughable to the faction of truck operators who see Cohen as nothing more than a landlord. “It’s a weird conflict of interest that Scott Weiner would ask Matt to help with public permit laws when Matt runs Off the Grid, a private company that we pay,” says one particularly critical truck owner. “If people could get public permits more easily, they wouldn’t have to be in Off the Grid. It’s like the mafia of food trucks.” On the other hand, Bacon Bacon owner Jim Angelus credits Cohen with working to bring food truck proprietors together. “[Cohen] said that he didn’t always feel comfortable taking the lead, but the general consensus was that we needed Matt [to represent us].”

Some truck owners take issue with what they see as OTG’s arbitrary and unfair practice of rotating at least one food truck out of each market every six months. Cohen says that the policy keeps things interesting for customers, but it also means that trucks can’t build customer loyalty in specific neighborhoods or depend on stable earnings from one month to the next. One owner complains that he was pulled from a location that was driving half of his catering referrals. “After we were pulled, all of that business dried up,” the owner says. “Meanwhile, some trucks are in many of the Off the Grid markets—and that’s Matt’s decision.” Cohen plays favorites, the owner asserts, with certain “power hitters,” a group of food trucks with permanent lines that includes Koja Kitchen, the Chairman, Senor Sisig, Hapa SF, and Bacon Bacon.

Angelus, who just happens to own one of the power hitters, sympathizes with Cohen. “He’s in a tough position because he started out as this guy who was a trailblazer, and he became, all of a sudden, this successful businessman representing us.” He cites all the infrastructure that Cohen provides: Besides the permit expediting, there’s the marketing, the music, the trash service, the folding chairs. “Matt has a demographer and a sophisticated staff determining if it’s better for me to park outside the Belmont Caltrain or the El Cerrito mall,” says Angelus. “All I have to do is park there and sell my cheeseburgers.”

Adam Zolot, the man behind the Red Sauce Meatballs truck, knows exactly how frustrating it can be to try to bypass Off the Grid and apply for a city permit on one’s own. “I sat down with an engineer for the Department of Public Works and asked her where public permits would be approved, and she said that she wasn’t at liberty to tell me,” he says. “Then she went into all of the fees, the schematic and radius map I’d need to submit, the notice I’d need to give, the hearings I’d have to go through, and I just threw up my hands.” Deciding he couldn't fight City Hall on his own, Zolot turned to Off the Grid—which meant submitting to a rite of passage familiar to every OTG proprietor: the Matt Cohen taste test.

The fateful day took place this fall in the parking lot at Fort Mason Center. When Zolot and his meatballs showed up, Cohen was nowhere to be seen. Zolot placed four compostable containers full of parmesan-dusted orbs on the metal shelf outside his truck’s window, as tenderly as if they'd been his children. Just as the steam began to subside, Cohen arrived and swooped in for a bite. “Mmm,” he grunted ambiguously, and then, along with other staff members, proceeded to ask Zolot questions about his Red Sauce Meatballs truck: “Where have you sold so far?” “What’s your average ticket price?” “How many covers do you do per shift?” A few days later, Zolot won the golden ticket: He was granted four gigs per month with Off the Grid.

“I can’t overstate what the [OTG] markets have given me,” he says now. “They’ve put me in front of people who would never have known the Red Sauce truck.” Zolot estimates that if he keeps operating costs in check, he can earn six figures a year with Off the Grid’s help. And while some truckers complain that Cohen’s 10 percent cut eats into their profit, Zolot doesn’t mind: “I see the 10 percent they take as a marketing budget.”

Back at OTG’s headquarters in the Fort Mason office complex, I ask Cohen if, as many food truckers tell me, it’s impossible to prosper as a food truck in San Francisco without Off the Grid. “I think it’s hard for a food truck to succeed,” he says. “I think it’s easier for it to succeed with us.”

Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco

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