Let me start off by saying, I am not a food truck purist.
Though I am a regular patron of Fruitvale taco trucks, I am also a fan of many of the new generation trucks, including Kogi in LA and CupKates here in the Bay Area. In fact it was after a recent stop at CupKates that I learned about Off the Grid, a regular market of street food vendors. Having just moved back to the Bay Area after living in Germany for the past two years, I hadn’t heard of Off the Grid and I instantly wanted to go.
Off the Grid is essentially a moving venue where food truck patrons can find anywhere from 4 to 30 trucks on a given date. Most, if not all, of the trucks at Off the Grid come out of the contemporary food truck explosion with trucks like Chairman Bao, Curry Up Now, and the Crème Brûlée Cart anchoring the event. Though Off the Grid hosts events throughout the week and in multiple cities in the Bay Area, its Friday night event at the Fort Mason Center is by far the largest, which is why I made my way out to the Marina this past Friday to get in on all the food I’d missed while I was living in Europe.
On the surface, Off the Grid looks like a great thing for food truck culture. After all, it’s a fantastic way to connect food trucks with the people who love them. It’s great for business, it’s fun—what’s the problem? But while I was standing in a 30-minute line to then pay $12 for three of Chairman Bao’s steamed buns, only to then wade through the ever-thickening crowd to wait in another line for $4 empanadas, I couldn’t help but feel like Off the Grid is a bit disingenuous in the image it projects.
Part of why contemporary food trucks have taken off in popularity is the allure of the truck. It makes people feel like access is limited because the truck could be anywhere at anytime (nevermind the fact that these newer trucks announce their locations via Twitter and Facebook) and they are getting good food at a low price. This idea clearly comes from the decades-old taco truck tradition where the trucks actually do move around to different locations without announcing their new locations on any online platform and the food is good, cheap, and filling.
The organizers of Off the Grid know they are riding on the cachet that comes with being considered “underground”—it’s in the name—yet nothing about this event resembles the experience of getting food from a bona fide taco truck. I drove out of my way, faced a parking nightmare, waited in a series of lines, each longer than the last, and by the end of the night ended up spending somewhere in the neighborhood of $40, the same I would have paid at a sit-down restaurant. This compared to the $4.50 I would have spent at my favorite East Oakland taco truck on a pastor burrito that usually is enough for dinner and lunch.
There’s nothing wrong with high-end food sellers using trucks as a new way to market their product and reach customers. But turning eating out of a truck into a food event and then riding on the underground associations people have with taco trucks is hypocritical when no traditional taco trucks are included in the event and the high prices bar the average food truck patron from attending.