Off The Grid says goodbye to Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto

Off the Grid

Off The Grid had its last North Berkeley food truck gathering on Shattuck Avenue and Rose Street on Wednesday, Dec. 19

Off The Grid, the food truck fest that has been a fixture on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto every Wednesday evening since June last year, had its last day in that location yesterday.

The city took the decision to stop hosting the market due to its impact on local brick and mortar businesses and property owners, and also because a reconfiguration of the space it used — at the intersection of Shattuck and Rose — is due to begin next year.

The sudden departure of the hugely popular street food gathering will come as a surprise to the estimated 1,500 people who make a beeline there every week to tuck into on-the-go edibles from the likes of Brass Knuckle, Fiveten Burger, Liba Falafel, and the CupKates Truck.

“Some businesses have taken a really big hit,” said Michael Caplan, Economic Development Manager for the City of Berkeley. “What was meant to be a special event became a competitive challenge for some existing brick and mortar stores.” Caplan said he had spoken to local restaurants who were losing $1,000 worth of business every Wednesday night. “One business owner said to me, ‘How would you feel if you saw your sales drop by a significant percentage on 50 days of the year?’,” he said.

Caplan said he had mixed feelings about the decision. “It’s a really cool thing, but the exciting food choices that Off The Grid brought in were also creating competitive pressure.”

Off The Grid organizer Matt Cohen said he had been told the reason for the cancellation was that the North Shattuck Association is planning to reconfigure the space used by Off The Grid, at the intersection of Shattuck Avenue and Rose Street, and therefore opted to not renew the mobile food gathering’s permit for 2013.

Cohen said work on the reconfiguration — which calls for more parking spaces and “parklets” (outlined in the the North Shattuck Pedestrian Improvements plan) — would have compromised the site. “The size of the space available after the reconfiguration is uncertain, and the city was reluctant to issue a short-term use permit.”

Cohen was told an annual permit would not be forthcoming two and half weeks ago and said he is sorry OTG could not have alerted its customers sooner. “We would have liked to have given more notice,” he said.

Heather Hensley, Executive Director of the North Shattuck Association, said the owners of the building at 1400 Shattuck had wanted OTG to leave for some time. “They are fairly upset at having the entrance to their businesses blocked twice a week,” she said. (There’s a weekly farmer’s market on the site, as well. The building is home to Lo Coco’s restaurant, Maru hair salon, and a chiropractic center among many others.)

“We decided to take a hiatus while we do the reconfiguration which should allow us more flexibility. Hopefully this will take the pressure off,” she said. The nonprofit farmers market which holds a weekly market in the same space every Thursday will stay for now, Hensley said. She added that it had been a hard decision to not reissue the annual permit. “Off The Grid has been very professional and good to work with. This is through no fault of theirs.”

The Shattuck market has been a winner for Off The Grid and the food trucks that made their weekly stop there. Cohen said it easily brought at least 1,500 people to the neighborhood every week, usually more. “It was very successful in bringing in a different demographic,” he said.

But he acknowledges there have been detractors whose main complaint has been the market’s effect on parking. “That more than anything has been an issue, and I’m very sensitive to that,” he said, adding that parking in the Gourmet Ghetto had always been problematic.

Off The Grid opened a second Berkeley location on Haste at Telegraph Avenue in July of this year which, Cohen said, was doing “steady” business. While the North Berkeley market has focused on interesting, chef-leaning food in keeping with the neighborhood, Telegraph has been a magnet for students seeking value-driven dishes, he said.

Cohen is intent on finding a new space in North Berkeley, but whether the city is as open to the idea is another matter. “We are looking for an alternative location and the city is helping us with that,” he said. (He also urged Berkeleyside readers with ideas of possible spots to email them to

Hensley said Off The Grid might potentially be able to return to the same area on a monthly basis. Caplan said the food truck market was invited in as a way to help boost the North Shattuck district’s identity and he could see applying that goal to another area of Berkeley. He said he could also envisage food truck markets operating on a special event basis.

Off The Grid makes its debut on Telegraph Avenue (07.13.12)
Off The Grid food truck fest to launch on Telegraph Avenue [06.22.12]
Local food names sign up for Off The Grid truck in Berkeley [10.19.11]
Crowds turn out for Berkeley’s inaugural Off The Grid [06.02.11]
Off The Grid to launch street food event in Berkeley [05.17.11]
Why does the street food scene bypass Berkeley? [10.18.10]

A small correction was made to a comment by Michael Caplan after publication of this story to reflect a mistake in quoting him made by the reporter.

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  • The Sharkey

    Well, most of the empty real estate space I see is owned by conglomerates. Since they’re renting out SOME of their units, they can maintain their status as a business even when other units sit empty for years. I wonder if they’re able to write off the empty storefronts as a way of lowering the taxes they owe on the units they have that are filled?

  • TN

    There are positives and negatives for any business location. There are many legit and successful businesses located very close to this corner. And yes they are also close to the check cashing place. They may not be the “tony” businesses favored by corporate real estate investors who invest in suburban shopping malls, but that corner is not and will not be a mall type place.

    I can not see a reason that there would have been no legitimate interest by a business in locating at the empty corner store front. What is the financial angle in keeping a store front empty for so long?

  • Mbfarrel

    Lorin Station north of Alcatraz has some of the most poorly considered “open space” in the city and I think the area could use a boost. A broad completely unused median makes Adeline a sub-urban parkway worthy of *gasp* Walnut Creek.
    Perhaps OTG could be accommodated in South Berkeley.

  • Longviewer

    Exactly! You only had to go to OTG once to see that the folks who went there were not people who would otherwise patronize restaurants/cafes in that area. OTG was special, lively, fun–the kind of amenity Berkeley desperately needs. Most restaurants in that area seem long ago to have given up–they’re borderline shabby, and mediocre.

  • Iceland_1622

    I don’t believe that any Berkeley restaurants really ‘get this’ or understand the need for a real social gathering places for anyone over the age of 24. Additionally, most do *not* understand anything about the concept of restaurant hygiene and food safety. So at present I still recommend to people to drive over to Rivoli Restaurant on Solano Ave. which may be technically in Albany. They just completed a major remodel also and are deeply committed to quality. I was stunned at the number of people lined up for the food trucks on Fridays. We are all so isolated from one another in our own neighborhoods. This was one way to break that, if only temporarily. Yes, if I had my way, Shattuck would be closed to all but emergency traffic, however I don’t believe that is possible here. Too many people packed into too small a land mass. Those buses alone and then the endless firetrucks!

  • Part_of_the_Neighborhood

    Just one commenter, Geech, hit on the core reason why OTG North Berkeley is no longer: parking impacts. As the article explains, there isn’t any one reason OTG had to leave – there are many that are totally unique to this setting and situation, and brick and mortar restaurants are the least of the reasons. With regards to the relationship of the event to the restaurants, the issue isn’t competition over quality or desirability of food choices. It’s too little parking, a mediocre public transit connection, and a lack of residential density. It’s not that the restauranteurs feel OTG is attracting away THEIR customers or that these OTG customers would otherwise be eating at their restaurants. It’s more that the restauranteurs’ regular customers were consistently put off by the extra challenges of parking in the neighborhood Wednesday nights. A remarkably disappointing number of OTG customers were not walking, biking, or using public transit – many were driving 5-10 miles to be there. If the neighborhood were more densely populated, and if the public transit connection was better, it could support all these exciting choices and a shortage of parking would not impact these businesses so much – whether a OTG business or brick-and-mortars. As usual, urbanism is the answer to our problems : ) and holds the potential for a more exciting, contemporary Berkeley.

  • Fred Dodsworth

    Vlad, You’re just peddling more libertarian welfare. Vacancy rates have nothing to do with local taxes and everything to do with Berkeley’s exorbitant commercial rent rates. If Berkeley’s commercial real estate wasn’t monopolized by just a few holders, than the rental rates would reflect the laws of supply and demand. Because too few folks own too much property, we all suffer and must pick up their expenses. Property Development (Ruegg & Ellsworth), Everest Investments (Lakireddy, Reza Valle, and the owners the long vacant property on Vine and on Shattuck (the same folks who own Earthly Goods), make taxpayers bear the burden of constant police and fire calls to their neglected properties. It’s time for the city to use eminent domain to turn those properties into tax revenue generators rather than the cancer such blighted properties now represent in the heart of our commercial districts.

  • fred dodsworth

    Alan Connolly did exactly that to the previous two businesses (kitchen goods, and a vine shop) next to his Earthly Goods.

  • Fred Dodsworth

    actually, yes. Ken spent a million bucks for the property at Haste and Telegraph to keep it from being purchased and developed by the folks who own Amoeba Records. Adam Smith lived in a fantasy land but that hasn’t stopped generations of starry-eyed idiots from chanting his economic nonsense as though it was scripture.

  • Fred Dodsworth

    YES!! A vacancy fee (not tax, that requires a 2/3rds vote) on all commercial property that remains unleased for longer than six months. The fee should be substantial and it should cover the costs to the city for all the services such blighted properties require AND for the lost sale tax revenues which the city’s budget depends upon. I suggested this to everyone of our idiot council members and to our idiot mayor more than two years ago but they won’t touch it. Too much of their reelection funding comes from these same “welfare queen” property developers. By the by, although Michael Caplan is quoted in the original story… by his own admission, he has NO responsibilities or authority for developing “BUSINESS” in Berkeley. He and his department exist ONLY to aid developers in the construction permitting process. This is exactly what he told me when I asked him what the city was able to do for small business owners (I was specifically addressing the now defunct “Main Street” grant program for facade rehabilitation). Of course our “Economic Development Department” isn’t in the planning department, no, it’s in the City Manager’s Office where our tax dollars (AGAIN!!) are being used to subsidize development practices that don’t benefit our community.

  • Fred Dodsworth

    According to the folks who previously owned Black Oak Books, Dave Ruegg (of “Rue-Ell Enterprises” and “Property Development, Inc.”) said he couldn’t lower the rent at Shattuck and Vine (aprox $18,000 a month at triple net) because if he did all his other tenants would want lower rents, too. Rue-Ell owned the aprox 25,0000 sq. ft. Warehouse Records location on Durant Ave. above Telegraph, which they left empty for more than a FRACKING DECADE!!! using such logic.

  • calgal

    Meeting my neighbors at OTG for the past year was one of my favorite things to do in Berkeley. It brought back an old-town community feel of gathering, and filled a clearly-overdue market niche for inexpensive gourmet food. I am sad to see it go and hope the government officials who decided to make this decision for us re-think their intervention.

  • Mbfarrel

    Following your logic then a “remarkably disappointing number” of the brick and mortar businesses customers are driving X number of miles. Otherwise they wouldn’t need parking.
    Also I didn’t notice much attempt by local businesses to capitalize on the people who attended OTG.

  • sweatpea4329

    I certainly would not call all the food in the area “complete crap” – and apparently others wouldn’t either as many of those businesses have been there a long time. However, when I see that rents are $18,000/month as mentioned above (whaaaaat???), it makes the issues of lost revenue a MUCH bigger deal for those who have brick and mortar locations. This sounds a lot like the issue of no taxes for internet sales – which I find to be a HUGELY unfair practice for B&M locations. Both the trucks and the taxes are completely unfair for those who have chosen to set down roots in their communities, hire employees, trade around with other business owners, pay exorbitant rents, and pay all the many other expenses of having a permanent location vs having an occasional movable feast on the street.

  • Jenyabel

    Actually, that’s untrue. As a former brick & mortar and current truck owner I can attest that trucks pay quite significant taxes and fees to the City of Berkeley, the Berkeley Health Department, and OTG in order to participate. There is less initial investment and ultimate risk in a mobile food business, but it’s a myth that our overhead is significantly less. It’s not, and our margins just as tight.

  • helga

    As a local, I REALLY don’t think it affected local business. “I want to stand in line for 30min outside and sit on a folding chair/pavement” VS “I want to go to a sit restaurant or get takeout food every Wednesday” Off the Grid offered diversity to North end of the Gourmet Ghetto which is mostly greesy Asian or WAY TOO EXPENSIVE (You can’t eat cheeseboard pizza everyday either) For a dense neighborhood of families and students the Shattuck location offered diversity and options for families with kids that can’t ever agree on dinner Plus there was parking and easy transit for others. No more oxtail, korean, shave ice, and carrot nut patte!

    New Campus location? Too far and talk about affecting local business! Everything on Telegraph is cheap food and their direct competition for student pockets. Plus Campus is not a residential neighborhood (only student complexes to East), there is no parking, and transit is more difficult on telegraph.

    Suggestion: Move to the North Berkley Bart Station or that end of Ohlone Park (no competition, loads of residential homes/apartments, free parking, most ghetto folks can mostly walk there too, and there are limited food options that you can walk to there. I used to live there and know there is a need and space.

    I am really sad. My favorite trucks also left the front of my office in downtown Oakland.

  • helga

    Great idea – I suggested North Berkeley Bart – that thats that same community and it would help the burrito shop and bread shop a bit to get people out down there. (the new thrift shop, if true, will not be open at night).

  • helga

    I agree about the diesel (turn off!), but perhaps gas and solar could run most shops who rent space and do prep immediately before they arrive. I would LOVE and pay to have a dish washer, on site if that was an option. Or better yet if they would just let you bring your own plate and cup – that would be COMPLETELY AWESOME!

  • helga

    love it

  • helga

    Or if you are not using a place more than a month then the rent must decrease each day afterwards and the person who pays gets a 3yr lease!

  • helga

    i look at the building constantly and think what the heck!

  • dan

    i want a park there with more family affordable events that allow dogs!

  • dan

    Agreed! I am one of those people! and can’t take the cheap greese on this street or afford otherwise.