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 grub@offthegridsf.com.)

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.

Related:
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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  • Andrew Leonard

    Protractors? Surely that should be detractors?

  • serkes

    Depends upon your angle.

    Ira

  • Mike Duigou

    This is very disappointing. I don’t believe that there’s another location as suitable anywhere else in north Berkeley.

  • http://www.davosnewbies.com lknobel

    Yes, caught that. And Ira found the appropriate response before I did. I was thinking about the compass of the story.

  • anon

    Wouldn’t it make sense to have Off The Grid adjacent to a park so that there is somewhere to sit down? That way you aren’t in the heart of a commercial district where the stationary shops complain about the competition. What about something like the streets in front of Willard Park?

  • http://www.facebook.com/akmonday Kyle Monday

    they should come down and do it near san pablo park. we have hardly any local businesses that would be impacted by this, and plenty of seating.

  • The Sharkey

    UGH! :-P

  • http://stefanco.com Stefan Lasiewski

    Or Civic Center park. There are few businesses on those immediate streets.

  • http://www.facebook.com/alinacon Alina Constantinescu

    Of course the local businesses said no to OTG. Ask any business owner if he/she likes competition and the answer will be no.
    But has anyone bothered to ask the patrons?! We love more choices!!!!! And there’s 1,500 of us and a handful of business owners. The patrons are taxpayers in this lovely city, too. We should have a say in this decision, too.
    And I don’t see how this is a direct competition anyway. I go to OTG
    for a bite to go. If I want a sit-down experience I go Coco’s.
    Entirely different ball game.
    Whatever. Berkeley is so boooring sometimes.

  • MarcusHart

    Hurting local businesses would be the last thing I would want to encourage, but shouldn’t we also consider the overall additional business that Off the Grid attracts to the area? Not to mention the additional options for locals? There are probably creative ideas to get the local businesses more integrated as well (set up tables outside their businesses with special dishes for Off the Grid nights, for example). Sounds like it’s too late for that, but changes just call for creative responses, I would think, rather than shutting down a clearly popular event. Unfortunate…

  • Vladislav_Davidzon

    I must be missing something. Competition comes to the street and is wildly successful… so the City decides to choose winners and losers and bans the new competition? Maybe someone should be asking whether much of the food in this part of town simply sucks – and maybe THAT’s why these businesses are not able to effectively compete?

    Mind you I speak as someone who eats out for many of my meals — and I rarely, if ever, eat in this part of town because there really aren’t very many good choices. Apparently that’s also true for the 1500+ people who come out for his event.

    Since when do we want our government picking and choosing which businesses will fail and which ones should succeed? Unbelievable. Instead of saying “look, we’re sorry, but you guys need to compete and offer better services and products — ie BETTER quality food at better prices” they’re killing the competition.

    If the issue of price competition (and I don’t know, are the trucks significantly cheaper?) is the cost of rent, then again the issue must be to enable greater competition and force the landlords to lower the rents as a result. Let the freaking market decide – not some grossly overpaid bureaucrat who has no clue how the markets work.

    The real losers are the customers who get crappier food at higher prices. It’s no wonder our City is so financially bankrupt when they keep making these sorts of dumb decisions that ultimately lead to people going out to eat elsewhere with higher quality and cheaper food.

  • The Sharkey

    I’d love to see it in one of the Marina parking lots (Panini on the Pier?), but I guess that might make it harder for patrons to get there.

  • The Sharkey

    But from the City’s perspective, OTG trucks aren’t paying the same taxes and fees that brick-and-mortar restaurants are.

  • http://www.facebook.com/alinacon Alina Constantinescu

    Agreed!!! We the customers are the losers. Why don’t we get a say in this decision?!

  • http://www.facebook.com/alinacon Alina Constantinescu

    Then raise the permit fees for OTG. Ask for a bigger cut.

  • The Sharkey

    Would OTG trucks be willing to pay the same taxes and fees that brick and mortar businesses do? What would be appropriate amounts for the City to charge them?
    if someone can figure that out, maybe this could be revisited?

  • http://www.facebook.com/alinacon Alina Constantinescu

    Meanwhile, let’s kill a wildly successful event with the citizens of Berkeley while the City comes up with some new commission to study the issue. F that.
    Like Vlad said, Coco’s and whoever need to figure out how to be more competitive if indeed that’s an issue. Have some Wednesday specials or something. Like 1/2 on wine since you can’t get alcohol at OTG.

  • fabshelly

    I’d like to find out what businesses complained so I can never, never darken their doorsteps again.

  • Vladislav_Davidzon

    Um. The local businesses are only hurting because their products are of worse quality at a higher price ;o) That’s the whole problem with this equation and the city choosing winners and losers.

  • Vladislav_Davidzon

    Maybe the City should not be charging businesses taxes and fees PERIOD. That might help with the vacancy rate, don’t ya think? There is a reason most businesses incorporate in Delaware and Nevada.

  • MarcusHart

    Let’s just say I was treading softly in my language, and I agree with you..;)

  • The Sharkey

    The trucks can afford to offer higher quality for lower prices because they don’t have to pay rent, or the same fees, staffing, etc. They’re also generally less environmentally friendly since they use all disposable plates, cups, utensils, etc.

  • mtrono

    I’m sure that the B&M business were affected, but I strongly doubt sales were impacted 50%. OTG brings a completely different demographic than who eat dinner @ Saul’s or LoCoco. I imagine a lack of parking probably affected those business more than the food trucks. Then again, I’d wager that the majority of the 1500 attendees walked or biked to OTG. Very few parking spaces are lost due to the event.

    The 50% claim sounds bogus. Overall I’d wager that net increase in food sales on Wednesdays was vastly increased. At the expense of local businesses? Somewhat, yes.

  • asma maryam

    I came here to say the very same thing.

  • David D.

    Goodbye, OTG. I attended your event a few times, but I was never really impressed. Long lines for food from a truck that costs as much as food from a building elsewhere in town? Limited seating? No good, reasonably priced brick-and-mortar offerings (other than the Cheeseboard) so I can get something tasty while my friends get something from OTG? I’m surprised it was as popular as it was, but nearby restaurants didn’t even try to cash in on its success. I was their target market, and they did nothing to attract my business. C’est la vie. Maybe I’ll check out OTG on Telegraph and see if it’s better. Does Berkeley really need 2 OTG events anyway?

  • The Sharkey

    Nah. Berkeley is a big enough city that there are plenty of areas where OTG can set up without being right next door to one of our major restaurant spots. Businesses who make Berkeley their home deserve more attention from the City than folks with trucks who roll into town for a couple hours from Oakland and other parts of the bay.

  • The Sharkey

    I’m not endorsing the practice, just explaining what I believe to be the reasoning behind the decision.

  • Geech

    In terms of the complaints of local businesses, this area was never intended to support parking for the food trucks and its 1500 patrons. I actually avoided local businesses in the area on Weds night for this reason on occasion. OTG needs a place for patrons to sit, mill and park. North Berkeley BART, San Pablo Park, Willard Park (with old Andronico’s parking) would be better locations.

  • MarcusHart

    “…there are plenty of areas where OTG can set up…”

    Honest question: is this happening though? The article makes it sound like there will be only the other existing OTG spot from now on. In other words, the gourmet ghetto event is not moving, it’s just ending. Maybe I’m getting the wrong impression?

  • Worblehat

    Why not have it at the old Andronico’s site on University? There’s plenty of room for the trucks and that pizza restaurant that has been under construction for half a year is showing no signs of life.

  • MarcusHart

    I’m sympathetic to the trash issue, but aren’t all the plates/cups/utensils composted? Or am I remembering that wrong? Given the energy use in the permanent restaurants buildings (heating, lighting, etc.) I’d wait to see the numbers before assuming they are more environmentally friendly. I see the case that they could be, I’m just not so sure its a clear cut case.

  • The Sharkey

    I’ve tried OTG at various spots as well as the related StrEAT Food Park in the SoMa and never been particularly impressed. While prices were OK, they were always higher than I expected for food out of a truck that I had to eat off paper plates while standing or sitting on uncomfortable seating in a parking lot.

    I like the idea (especially of an established spot like StrEAT Food Park) but not enough of the food trucks seem to take chances on really weird ideas, and we’re perhaps a bit too spoiled from having so much good and diverse food available locally. Probably a little too much regulation too.

  • Worblehat

    No, the reason we have so many vacancies is because there is a single landlord who owns a lot of properties who kites the rent through the roof the minute he hears that a business renting his space is making any kind of money.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=828188289 Emily S Howard

    South Berkeley

  • The Sharkey

    North Berkeley BART on a Saturday or Sunday would be excellent!

  • Charles_Siegel

    I never went to this OTG on Shattuck, but I have gone to the OTG on Telegraph, and I find that the food is more expensive than many of the brick-and-mortar restaurants on Shattuck.

  • The Sharkey

    Ken Sarachan? I thought he just bought property so he could leave it blighted out of spite?

  • http://www.facebook.com/alinacon Alina Constantinescu

    How about the patrons!? We, the patrons/taxpayers/citizens, have spoken. We want them here. We clearly said so with our wallets and presence Wed after Wed. Don’t we deserve some attention? Shouldn’t we get a say when the City decides to kill a hugely popular event?

  • Vladislav_Davidzon

    So if the end result is consumers getting a better product at a lower price, maybe it makes sense to let the local businesses go bankrupt and make the trucks a permanent staple in the area? The only losers would be the landlords, of whom maybe probably don’t even live in Berkeley.

  • The Sharkey

    I get the same feeling you do, but I’m not sure whose fault that is. The article doesn’t say OTG is being banned from other parts of the City, just that they’re being kicked out of that specific location so it seems like they could set up shop somewhere else if they wanted to.

    I really like Geech’s idea of using the North Berkeley BART parking lot during the weekend. The overflow parking along the Ohlone Greenway is never used on the weekends, and would be the perfect spot for this. Patrons could get there via BART or the bike path, park for free if they were driving, and eat their food at Cedar Rose Park just across the street.

  • The Sharkey

    Yeah, great idea! At a time when local CIty governments are going bankrupt and unable to get enough funds to do even basic infrastructure maintenance, let’s drive away as much business as possible and take away as many sources of funding as we can so that the entire burden is on homeowners! That’s the spirit!

    /sarcasm

  • The Sharkey

    I’m not going to run a study for you, but you need to take into account the energy and water wasted manufacturing, packaging, distributing, and disposing of all that waste material. Even compostable items take a lot of water and energy to produce and ship over from China or wherever.

  • http://www.facebook.com/alinacon Alina Constantinescu

    Maybe you shouldn’t have avoided it. I was a regular customer who always found parking. Maybe I was lucky… I don’t know. But I think people don’t stay for too long (like they do at sit-down dinners). They spend maybe 30 minutes or so. So the parking turnover rate is pretty good.

  • MarcusHart

    I am aware of the sustainability issues, and what goes into one of those analyses, what I’m suggesting is that it’s not so clear cut, and I, personally, would hesitate to make that a criteria for which business is “better” or for whether OTG should be allowed to stay. Like I said, I’m sympathetic to the issue, i just think it’s a side issue and my sense is that there isn’t a clear cut winner. I could be wrong!

  • MarcusHart

    RE: N. Berkeley BART station: I think that’s a great idea!

  • http://www.facebook.com/forrestshaka.nahasapeemapetilon Forrest Shaka Nahasapeemapetil

    Not very many students willing to pay $8.95 for a bulgogi Korito in that area.

  • Vladislav_Davidzon

    No, please re-read what I said. What you’re dealing with are two competing sets of businesses, one of which is greatly outperforming the other by several key metrics. The market clearly dictates where things should be going, but the City bureaucrats are deciding they want something else instead, which makes absolutely no sense.

  • Vladislav_Davidzon

    Huh? Can you explain more? Who is that landlord? There is a leasing company that I am aware manages much of the rental market, but do they really have much power to actually influence anything when they’re just a middleman?

  • The Sharkey

    It makes total sense, because the City sees significantly more benefits from established local restaurants that pay into the local economy in various ways that vagrant food trucks from neighboring areas do not.

    I agree with you that the retail landlords in Berkeley are ridiculous and are seriously hurting business here, but what we really need is something more like a vacancy tax that would encourage landlords to reduce their prices.

  • Charles_Siegel

    Competition in the market requires a level playing field. We don’t have that when some businesses are paying rent and other businesses are using city-owned land that they do not pay rent for.

    It is easy to make an argument that the city bureaucrats who are interfering with the market are the bureaucrats who set up Off the Grid.