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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.
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