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Friday, June 24, 2011

Off the Grid Celebrates Its First Birthday: An Interview with Organizer Matt Cohen

Posted By on Fri, Jun 24, 2011 at 3:00 PM

click to enlarge Matt Cohen. - JOHN BIRDSALL
  • John Birdsall
  • Matt Cohen.

Today marks the official birthday of Off the Grid, the roving series of food-truck gatherings that started at Fort Mason and now has six locations, with a seventh on the way -- a weekly San Mateo Off the Grid starting July 11. To commemorate the occasion, SFoodie called up organizer Matt Cohen to find out what he's learned over the course of the year.

SFoodie: You've had a busy year, it seems. How long did it take you to get the first Off the Grid organized?

Cohen: I spent six months submitting documents and talking to San Francisco Rec and Park regarding the Upper Haight and Civic Center locations. But when we found Fort Mason, that jumped ahead of our launch calendar. I'd say that happened in about two months.

We were originally going to start with the two [city parks] and see where it went from there. As timing and fortune would have it, the Fort Mason Off the Grid has become our destination market, a proof of concept. We doubled the size of the market every week.

Were you trying to model Off the Grid after other cities or events?

I was initially trying to evoke an Asian night market, particularly with Fort Mason. I definitely was taking a bit of a cue from Portland, but looking more for something like the night markets in Asia or a Moroccan street food market.

How were you able to expand so quickly?

Persistence and stubbornness, more than anything. Really, from the first night we launched in Fort Mason there's been a strong demand for us to be in a variety of places, mixing and matching trucks in creative ways. So my team and I are like, "Let's keep on going and see what we can do." As long as there's a sense of community there, we're interested in exploring where we can go.

Do you foresee setting up a permanent Off the Grid?

I have an interest in it, but the way that the city's infrastructure is and how the city is laid out, San Francisco isn't set up for a permanent market. All the trucks move around quite a bit to be economically viable, so it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to have them stay in one spot. That's the reason why we shifted from an all-day Saturday market at McCoppin to just lunches, though we may do theme dinners once a month on Saturday nights. The reality is that being there for an extended time didn't fit with the needs of the trucks.

Why do you think Off the Grid has been such a success?

People love the variety of different food options at the markets. Plus, there aren't a lot of places where you can go and have serendipitous encounters with neighbors and friends. I always thought people would come because of the food. The biggest surprise -- and a happy surprise -- has been the sense of community that has developed at the markets. People love sitting outside and seeing neighbors and friends. That's the most powerful piece of what we're doing today.

Follow us on Twitter: @sfoodie, and like us on Facebook.
Follow me at @JonKauffman.

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Jonathan Kauffman


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