Load in, pack out, and leave no trace behind—that’s the Off the Grid goal. And with dozens of daily pop-up events around the San Francisco Bay Area, it’s a lofty one. Remarkably, it’s something that California’s largest food truck organizer manages to pull off week after week.
If you’ve ever been to a food truck event in San Francisco, it was probably organized by Off the Grid. Locally, the company has become a household name, as it was an early pioneer in the mobile food movement and continues to draw thousands of crowds each week to its food truck markets with live music, quirky entertainment, local beverage purveyors, and a curated selection of the region’s best food trucks.
While it’s a big production that requires lots of resources, Off the Grid has the unique advantage of having and maintaining a relatively small footprint. Its commitment to creating sustainable events, adopting green initiatives, educating consumers, and supporting the small business ecosystem is admirable,m and one of the many things that make the Off the Grid experience so great.
Now in its 12th year, Off the Grid started as a small food truck pop-up event organized by founder and CEO Matthew Cohen. Originally from Denver, Matt started his career as a public school teacher in Atlanta, Georgia. But after a short stint teaching abroad in Japan, he became obsessed with Asia’s bustling night market scene. He was eager to bring a similar experience to the states.
What started as a ramen truck called Tabe Trucks became a crash course in San Francisco’s notoriously tricky permitting system. Matt saw an opportunity to improve the system and took it.
With five hundred dollars and some traffic cones, the first Off the Grid market was launched in 2010. It has since grown into a thriving events and experience platform with more than 300 mobile food creators, who together serve over 4,000,000 meals a year from Pleasant Hill to Cupertino. Off the Grid’s marquee event at Fort Mason Center draws anywhere from 4,000-9,000 people every Friday night throughout its spring, summer, and early fall season.
Like many small businesses in the event and hospitality industries, the pandemic took a huge toll on Off the Grid. The company was forced to shutter virtually all of its weekly markets, let go hundreds of staffers, and place Fort Mason Center on hold for two years. But, as Off the Grid President Lex Scala put it, “It was a sobering moment that opened up a world of opportunities we never knew existed.” Within that trying time, the company showed just how nimble and flexible it could be. It figured out a way to survive within its new normal and capitalize on its strengths—spinning an entirely new business model out of the company that connects mobile food vendors with government funding to support communities hit by natural disasters. This new Food Responders program became a much-needed solution to disorganized and bureaucratic community feeding programs. When it wasn’t serving the public for events, Off the Grid fed approximately 10,000 people during the height of the pandemic and brought a total of nearly $17.2 million back to local businesses.
While Off the Grid is still in the process of reopening all of its weekly public food truck events, things have returned to a new kind of normal, and all of its businesses are thriving.
Every weekly Off the Grid market—from daily lunch service at Levi’s Plaza to Wednesday dinners in Foster City, Menlo Park, and Pleasant Hill—is proof of the company’s commitment to leave no trace behind. The trucks roll in, they serve a delicious variety of meals with inspiration from all over the world—they take their trash, and they pack out. At some markets, Off the Grid sets up tables, chairs, and string lighting, transforming empty parking lots into temporary lively food spots where all walks of life love to sit and enjoy a meal.
But no market is as remarkable as Off the Grid’s weekly Friday night festival at Fort Mason Center. “We build it from scratch in the parking lot, so if you were to come here this morning and come back at 5 the next morning, you’d have no idea it existed,” said Melody Yeung, Off The Grid’s Head of Operations.
You can see other sustainability initiatives at play here, too. Early on, Off the Grid made the switch to FreeWire’s eco-friendly Mobi Gen Flex battery-powered generators for all of its mobile food needs at Fort Mason Center. Made possible through a grant from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, the Mobi Gen provides five hours of zero-emissions power every week, allowing the company to do away with two existing diesel-powered generators. According to Melody, that amounts to eliminating 10 gallons of diesel fuel at each event and cutting nearly 3 tons of CO2 emissions each season.
The company also made recycling and composting a top priority through a partnership with Clean Vibes, which brings trash sorters to each event to ensure waste is properly disposed of. Lastly, Off the Grid mandates use of eco-friendly packaging and service ware—everything must be either compostable or recyclable—and continues to strive for zero waste at its events.
No two events at Off the Grid are the same. You could attend a market every single week and still not try every single dish that its curated collective of food trucks has to offer. Longstanding favorites include Capello’s Barbecue—known for the juiciest ribs in the Bay Area—Filipino fusion favorite Senor Sisig, and Bun Bao purveyor The Chairman, whose classic steam bun menu has barely changed since Owner Curtis Lam started the business over a decade ago.
The best way to experience an Off the Grid food truck market is to go with a group and have everyone order a dish to share so you can try a little bit of everything and then return for your favorites. Spicy Sichuan-style noodles, savory quesabirria, buttery lobster rolls, sweet Thai fusion, burritos in all shapes and sizes, chocolate-dipped churros—the incredible food options are nearly endless. And the vendors are just as friendly and diverse as the food they make, as most are family-run, immigrant, and minority-owned businesses.
While the food is the main draw, there are so many other reasons to spend your Friday night at Off the Grid. For starters, there’s always a killer DJ spinning fun tunes, followed by a lively band. There’s a bar with local options that are open all night, as well as a wine garden with the best selection from Sonoma’s Kivelstadt Cellars.
Every month also brings a new special event or celebration that offers new and exciting entertainment, like the Bay Area’s Lion Dancers, popstar flash mobs, Storm Troopers, and stilt walkers. The first Friday of every month, Off the Grid caters to families with face painters and kid-friendly entertainment, while the third Friday is all about specials for dog owners. The most memorable event to date was a costumed wiener dog race held right inside the market. The wiener winner’s owner got a meal and a drink on the house.
It’s pure fun. It’s outdoors, it’s open, it’s flexible, and it’s perfect for any mood. You can go there on a date, take your family for an early dinner, meet up with co-workers for a happy hour, and everyone can choose what they want to eat.
Matt attributes Off the Grid’s success to the Bay Area community and its embrace of outside-the-box thinking, innovation, and placemaking. “What we’re really about is helping communities thrive and building vibrant spaces. Our experiences offer the opportunity for those casual collisions that knit a community together.”
Off the Grid lunch markets around San Francisco are open most days from 11-2 in different locations around the city. There’s also a Saturday lunch market in Alameda from 11-3. Weeknight markets are on Tuesdays at Tanforan Mall and Wednesdays in Pleasant Hill, Menlo Park, and Foster City from 5-9.
The big weekly event with 20+ food trucks happens every Friday at Fort Mason Center from 5-10. The season runs from late March to early November. You can find all the market times and food truck lineups on Off the Grid’s website. Guaranteed you’ll come once and keep coming back time after time.
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