Berkely, CA: ‘Off the Grid’ Makes Rousing Berkeley Debut
Roland Robles’ truck was busier than it’d ever been. The owner of Fivetenburger thought he had brought enough burgers to last two hours — they were gone in about half that time. Robles is a veteran of Off the Grid, but rarely had he been swarmed like he was yesterday in the event’s Berkeley debut.
“It’s awesome. It was crazy busy,” said Robles, a 41-year-old Oakland resident who has been running his truck for nearly a year. “We’ll definitely come back and we’ll definitely bring a lot more food.”
His was among five trucks sprawled out on the cordoned-off corner of Shattuck and Rose, the launching pad of Off the Grid’s first East Bay location. After establishing six different events in San Francisco over the past year, the weekly street food event has found its way to Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto in a 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday slot.
Off the Grid organizer Matt Cohen said Tuesday that 1,000 visitors was “a number they would be happy with.” They broke that number less than halfway through. Kate McEachern’s Cupkates truck was the first to sell out, shuttering its door in less than an hour. With only three vendors left — Liba Falafel, Hapa SF and Brass Knuckle — lines began stretching out for half an hour or more.
But such is the nature of a test launch that gave the city a chance to dispense feedback, the vehicles a moment to be inspected, the vendors an opportunity to feel out the new terrain. Given those caveats, Cohen expressed optimism for future, saying that the opening exceeded expectations.
“I think we knew that this area would love this kind of food,” he said. “Next week we’ll bring twice the amount of trucks and go from there.”
More than a third of Off the Grid’s nearly 50 vendors are based in the East Bay, and Cohen said he had been looking on this side of the bridge to make things easier for both trucks and consumers. He focused his search primarily in Oakland, saying that Berkeley was “resistant to mobile vending for a while.” That changed once the North Shattuck Assocation approached him, and the two parties teamed up to secure licenses for the event.
“I probably wouldn’t have a gotten a permit before that, just because Berkeley doesn’t have a lot of street vending,” said Robles, who agreed that he had found a new favorite location. “As far as the permit process went, it was really easy for us. We just went to one office. It’s really easy compared to San Francisco. San Francisco is insane; they run you all over town.”
Cohen said that local stores had generally been supportive of the event, with only takeout sandwich hot spot Gregoire taking a “wait-and-see approach.” To fit Berkeley sensibilities, vendors will promote local, sustainable and organic menus as much as possible. as much as we can. Off the Grid will also seek to cross-promote local restaurants; Saul’s co-owner Peter Levitt will be serving out of the event’s main truck next Wednesday.
Most visitors were pleased with the event, even if some were mildly frustrated by the adjustment period. John and JoEllen Lezotte, who have lived in Piedmont for 35 years and often frequent other Off the Grid venues, were glad it made their drive shorter. John Vu, a five-year Berkeley resident, “didn’t quite expect this frenzy” and thought it added to the community, but added that the long lines didn’t make it conducive to families with children.
The only universal complaint — the sparse selection and the long waits — will likely be remedied when the truck count is upped to 10 for next week’s official launch.
“When you start in this space, you just have no idea what’s going to happen,” Cohen. “It could have been pouring rain and it could have been a hard day for people. Next week, we’ll come with our full A-game, make it a true grand opening.”
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