The move signals a switch of direction for Berkeley which, until now, has not made it easy for mobile food trucks to operate in the city. It is also a coup for the North Shattuck Association which paved the way for successful negotiations and prevented the event from going to another East Bay location, such as Oakland, although other East Bay venues are likely in future.
After launching its inaugural event a year ago in Fort Mason, Off The Grid now brings street food vendors together daily in six locations across San Francisco. Organizer Matt Cohen said they had been searching for an East Bay location for some time.
“We looked at the core values of serving great street food and we’re so happy we’ve settled on Gourmet Ghetto,” he said. “We emphasize local, sustainable, organic food, so what better place to launch than in the heart of Berkeley’s food revolution?”
Starting on June 1, permitting issues allowing, eight to 10 mobile food trucks will start operating at the intersection of Shattuck and Rose, using the same footprint as Thursday’s Berkeley Farmers’ Market. They will be there, serving an array of bite-sized dishes, from 5-9pm. Those that are already confirmed include Cupkates, Liba Falafel, Hapa SF and The Taco Guys. The Crème Brulée Guy is also a likely presence. The line-up will alternative every few weeks with four to five new vendors coming in at regular intervals.
Heather Hensley, Executive Director of the North Shattuck Association which submitted a joint proposal with Off The Grid to the city, said the idea had been brewing for about a year — a few street food trucks attended last year’s Spice of Life event — but that, until now, the city had shied away from giving new permits for mobile trucks.
“Off The Grid is not giving food trucks free rein,” she said, explaining the change of heart. “It’s a controlled event on a particular day and time. It’s like a farmers’ market. A known quantity.” Hensley said councilmember Laurie Capitelli had been helpful in helping bring the event to Berkeley.
Any truck participating in Off The Grid Berkeley needs to be certified by the city’s health department, irrespective of whether they already have permits from other cities. Cohen says many of the mobile vendors who participate in Off The Grid now are from the East Bay. “It’s great that they will be able to have the opportunity to serve locally,” he said.
Gail Lillian, owner of Liba Falafel, which launched in 2009 and is based in Oakland, said she is thrilled to be able to serve customers close to home. “I am a big fan of the East Bay and I love to do business here.” Lillian added that she had not even tried to apply for a permit to operate in Berkeley before now because she had heard it was so difficult to secure one.
Hensley said she hoped the event would attract “a different crowd” and that it would help people rediscover the neighborhood. Whereas one might expect a younger demographic to be drawn to food trucks, because of the lower cost and that group’s social-media savvy — food trucks use Twitter and Facebook to communicate their whereabouts and menus to customers — Hensley says the crowds at Off The Grid are diverse. “They are young and old as well as families. Many of the people who go to Off The Grid in San Francisco come from the East Bay.”
The organizers are sensitive to how north Berkeley bricks-and-mortar food businesses might feel about the event. The event is deliberately scheduled on Wednesdays, a weekday night which tends to be slow for restaurants, and there are various tie-ins planned. One licensed truck will be reserved for local restaurant chefs to prepare their own street food, for instance, and participating trucks are being selected so that they are not “super competitive” with existing businesses.
Hensley is hopeful that the increased foot traffic will be good for all Gourmet Ghetto businesses. “There’s going to be energy and excitement and, if local businesses stay open later, they should benefit from new people coming to get a taste of north Berkeley,” she said.