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Empire of Nom Nom
Carolyn Alburger | Photo: Chris Rochelle and Aya Brackett | December 2, 2013
With Off the Grid rumbling across the Bay Area, Matt Cohen has become the don of food trucks—and not everyone is happy about it.
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.