Archive for the ‘San Francisco’ Category

">On the grid: Popular food truck event isn’t what it seems

Posted by Rebecca Farivar on August 23, 2012

Chairman Bao at Off the Grid.

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.

Taco Bike: Interview with Todd Barricklow

Posted by Cyrus Farivar on August 18, 2010

Back in June, I first spotted the Taco Bike during my daily perusals of online oddities. Given my love of bikes and tacos, it seemed the best of both worlds.

SF Weekly tried it out later that month, noting: “We enjoyed our first taco bike fish taco, made with tilapia and piled with cilantro, sour cream, and thick jalapeño slices. But it was the purple cabbage Holt had picked the day before from his and girlfriend Naomi Brilliant’s Healdsburg-based Roshambo Farms that was the unexpected star.”

SFW also noted that the idea for the Taco Bike dates back to 2008, and is sort of mentioned in sketch form on Weird Fish’s blog.

Todd actually wrote me back on June 10, and it took me over two months to post this interview. My apologies.

1) What inspired the creation of this bike? How long did it take to build? Is this a one-off or are you going to be making more?

My friend Timothy Holt from Weird Fish in SF had this idea to somehow have a bike and be able to ride around and serve/cook tacos from it. I jumped at the idea and started telling him all these features that I thought it could have. It took me several long and sporadic weeks of working at night to get this thing put together. The hardest part was figuring out which components could come together to make the whole of the bike. Finding and ordering parts and hunting down little bits here and there was really a challenge. Some parts I could pick up at the hardware store, others parts had to be special ordered from restaurant supply and specialty tool catalogs and RV supply websites.

I’m an artist by day and I don’t like to go into production on anything, but I would like to build another food bike, maybe a Crepe Bike? I work in Ceramics for my fine art and I also build strange pedal powered contraptions, and I’m in the middle of building another bike right now. This one has one nine foot wheel and two smaller wheels that jut out from one side.

These contraptions are built to race on the railroad tracks for an event that my wife produces. After I race them one year, I put rubber on the wheels and make them street legal.

2) Is it specifically designed for tacos? If so, why/how? Have you had any response from real taqueros?

The Taco Bike is specifically built for making three different kinds of tacos, and has a four-slot custom griddle so none of the meats touch each other. Also because Weird Fish has a large vegan demographic, the griddle was designed to make sure the veggies are not touching the beef tongue.

I did talk with the owner of our favorite taco truck about the bike and she made some good suggestions on what she would need to meet safety codes here in Santa Rosa. She definitely had stars in her eyes when I showed her the bike.

3) Will we see this out on the streets anytime soon? The Bite Club Bites site says Weird Fish commissioned it. Will they be using it? If so, when/how/where?

The first date of use will be Friday June 18th and Timothy may just run it in front of Weird Fish for that night. It’s only 4 blocks to Delores park so I’m sure it will end up there often.

4) How does it handle hills, especially SF-grade ones? Are there gears?

It has a Nexus 3 speed hub on the back, and I have ridden it fully loaded up on some medium size hills here in Santa Rosa.

I kind of like the idea of it being limited to a certain footprint of the city where it can go. It keeps things micro-local.

5) What’s your favorite Bay Area non-Twittering taco truck?

I don’t know if they Twitter or not but Antonjitos La Texanita here in Santa Rosa is pretty awesome. It used to just be a truck, then the owner opened a restaurant and now the truck is more mobile around the county.

Mobile vs Fixed-Location Eateries in San Francisco

Posted by Alan Wiig on March 2, 2010

The New York Times published an article last week titled “Coming to Terms with a Street Food Boom” that looked at the significant increase in mobile eateries in the Bay Area, and the attendant backlash from fixed-location eateries, also known as restaurants and cafes. The fixed-location eateries complain that by not having to pay rent, the street food vendors are able to charge lower prices for complementary items. San Francisco’s health department is concerned that mobile vendors may be operating without proper health permits, and since they are not tied to a sedentary location, it is harder to regulate these vendors.

What is interesting is how street food eateries are perceived by restaurants and cafes with fixed locations as threats. Tangentially, this could be seen as an instance of the city-dweller facing off against the nomad, angry over their mobility. In a down economy, the mobility allows the vendor both to go to their customer, and to move throughout the day and week. The restaurant or cafe does not have this luxury.  Of course, a city without sit-down places to grab food, coffee, or a beer would be a city without places to socialize.  But to add a twist to this free-flowing thought, what if street-drinking was allowed, so you could have an Anchor Steam while sitting on the curb, eating your street taco? Then the street itself becomes the social space completely.

San Francisco Cart Project: Interview with Matt Cohen

Posted by Cyrus Farivar on January 20, 2010

Some months ago, Matt Cohen, a once-aspiring street food entrepreneur himself, started the San Francisco Cart Project. I met him for the first time at the recent La Cocina event in December. I’ve been waiting for the right moment to run our interview, and I figured today was as good as any, given that it’s just in the wake of the SF Mobile Cart Vendor happy hour last night at Rye Bar on Geary.

1) What’s SF Cart Project all about?

I read: “This site is intended to be an affordable resource for new and existing businesses to find the basic information needed to start a mobile catering business in the Bay Area.” on your site. Are you a business? A nonprofit? Just a guy who likes to help out street food vendors? How is this related to ?

It is an effort to create a centralized resource of regional and national mobile vending services for both new and existing vendors to find information on permitting, purchasing, licensing, cart/truck design, social media and business services.

Is this part of my consulting business, or just a hobby for someone that loves street food? Both. I am certainly trying to construct a helpful resource for answering many questions of potential clients who feel that they want to do their own research, or for people who are just considering entering the street food business but don’t want to hire someone to assist them. Longer term, it could turn into something else, if it could sustain itself. Right now, I am focused on just trying to compile as much helpful information as I can in positive and constructive way.

2) How do you see these newer Internet carts/trucks as being an extension of existing trucks? What’s your favorite local non-Twitter truck/cart? What should I order there?

The space restrictions of truck/cart service lends itself to producing a limited menu of products. The best trucks have always been the ones that specialize in one area, at a reasonable price. And those (mainly taco trucks) have been the ones to raise the bar and show customers that these mobile businesses aren’t roach coaches. The most successful new trucks/carts have just capitalized on that same artisanal spirit of limiting the scope of their menu in favor of quality, while telling a compelling story with the products they serve.

I’m a big fan of any elote that I come across. I just love them.

3) Not to rain on your parade or anything, but why would I give you $35 for this PDF file when I can download them, presumably for free from the city/county websites, no?

The intention of offering the documents on the website is to give people one resource where they can get both the code and the applications for the entire spectrum of the permit process in one shot. I am not shy about referring people to the primary documents and the appropriate websites where they can find this information for free (in addition to offering them for free viewing on the site).

So then why would someone pay for them? 1) Time. They get everything in one packet without having to travel down to each city department to collect these documents, many of which are only available in person. 2) Curating. Wading through hundreds of pages of code might be interesting for some people, but I figured others would appreciate getting everything at once so that they could focus on more important things; like their business plan. 3) Cost. To go to SF Health, Fire, Police Departments (for one hour each) is going to cost between 8-10$ in parking meter fees alone ( not to mention the inevitable 53$ parking ticket). 4) Supporting the site. A lot of this information hasn’t been assembled in this way before, and I hope that some people will be appreciative of the effort as the site expands. This is not meant to be a get rich quick scheme, but it would be nice to be able to cover some basic costs.

4) What’s your opinion on the statewide trend of increased regulation of street food and taco trucks?

I fundamentally feel that Street Food is here to stay. While a lot of local municipalities first reactions to an increased presence of street food vendors is to view them as a threat to existing brick and mortar businesses (their primary tax base), others are beginning to recognize that there is a way that street food can offer a really valuable service to specific markets, at specific times of day, where the capital investment of opening and maintaining a permanent restaurant isn’t justified.

That said, individual California municipal regulations in this area are a nightmare. From construction of these vehicles, to permitting standards, to commissary requirements; everything is stacked against small entrepreneurs finding an easy path to starting a business. There’s movement here, but I think that it is going to require community action and effort. The San Francisco Cart Project’s main goal is to provide primary source documents associated with the code so that entrepreneurs can be full informed regarding their options.

5) Where/what should I eat tonight? And what beer should I wash it down with?

If you haven’t had the Okonomiaki from Namu down at the Thursday Ferry Plaza Market you should try it. I lived in Japan for 3 years and it is my favorite in the Bay Area. From an non street food direction?: The Moules Frite at Chez Maman on Potrero Hill washed down with a Kronenberg is exceptional.

Audio: How To Sell From A Mobile Unit (Legally!) In The Bay Area

Posted by Cyrus Farivar on December 17, 2009

Last night’s legal workshop on street vending in San Francisco was a great success!

A lot of great info was passed around, as so as a public service, I’m making the audio of last night’s event available here, under a Creative Commons license. That means: feel free to share it, download it, remix it, whatever.

Caleb Zigas, La Cocina [pictured, right]

Matthew Cohen, San Francisco Cart Project
Martha Yañez, Small Business Assistance Center (City and County of San Francisco) [pictured, left]
Imelda Reyes & Mohanned Malhi, Senior Health Inspectors, Department of Public Health, City and County of San Francisco [pictured, center]

You can download the audio here (1 hr 39 min, 68MB), or play it in your browser below:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

SFWeekly’s John Birdsall (see our interview with him from February 2009 here) blogs that last Friday, the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department modified its solicitation for proposals to include Golden Gate Park. Previously, the solicitation had included all other SF park, save the mother of all City parks.

Further, the deadline for applications to vend in said parks would be pushed back from October 1, 2009 to October 15, 2009.

However, the R&P Dept. has made clear that it’s only interested in one operator for each park. However, that operator could have multiple concession stands.

So, theoretically a large taco truck empire like El Tonayense could expand its empire in various points of the park, or as Birdsall points out, La Cocina could act as the operator while its vendor members could sell individually. Or maybe there will be some kind of Transfomers-esque culinary collective.

Birdsall also has a revealing interview with Happy Belly owner Dennis Lee, the last former legal food vendor in Golden Gate Park — who operated there from mid-2006 until June of this year.

“I would say just realize this is not a normal landlord,” Lee told SFoodie, referring to Rec and Park. “It’s like going into business with the DMV.” The chef described a litany of frustrations he experienced with the city department, from limiting the kind of signage the Happy Belly carts could display to reluctance to intervene when hostile groundskeepers turned the sprinklers on in what Lee called acts of harassment.

Kung Fu Tacos: Interview with Jonathan Ward, co-owner

Posted by Cyrus Farivar on September 8, 2009

A week or so ago, I came across Kung Fu Tacos, which seems similar to Don Chow Tacos down in LA. Fortunately for me though, they operate within BARTing distance of my house — in SF’s Financial District — obviously I can’t wait to try them out. I hit up co-owner Jonathan Ward (pictured above) for the details.

1) What’s a Kung Fu Taco? What are your various options?

What’s on the menu?

Food with fighting spirit. We have a simple menu that we plan to evolve over time with various specials. For now there are 5 options. We have Asian Asada (beef), Nun Chuk Chicken, and Mushu Veggie for $2. The come topped with onion, cilantro, and our spicy Asian salsa. We also have two specialty tacos that are $3: Roast Ruck and Char Siu (glazed roast pork) that are topped with fresh mango salsa, green onion strips and green papaya.

2) How’d you guys get started? What’s your background in cooking/eating?

I have a product management background in the tech industry but have always had a passion for food and cooking. My business partner Tan has his own restaurant called Candybar in SF’s Western Addition.

I had been out of work for a year after the company I was working for folded and Tan was looking for a day time business opportunity. We had been following the popularity of the food trucks both in LA and NYC and we saw that there was a similar niche to be filled in the Bay Area.

3) I love that you guys are finally bringing more of this new taco truck goodness to the Bay. As I live in Oakland, I frequent Fruitvale taco trucks often. What trucks were you inspired by? What are your favorite trucks? How much of an inspiration was Kogi and Don Chow Tacos in LA?

El Tonayense was the first truck I tried when I moved to San Francisco a decade ago and I think it will always be my favorite. As for inspiration, I think that every one of the new generation of trucks owes a debt of gratitude to Kogi for kicking this movement into high gear. I haven’t had a chance to try their tacos myself but I hear they are delicious. We didn’t actually hear of Don Chow until we were well into finalizing the concept for Kung Fu Tacos. I have seen their menu though and it looks interesting. Would love to try their Chimales if I ever get back to LA again.

4) What areas of SF are you serving? Will you be coming to Oakland at all? What has been the most surprising thing about operating the truck?

Right now we are focused on our lunch business in the Financial District of SF. We have a space on the corner of Sansome and Jackson that has been very good to us. We are also working on expanding to do happy hour and after hours business so if anyone reading this has a club or bar with some private parking nearby we would love to talk to you.

No immediate plans to operate in Oakland but anything is possible once we start expanding.

I guess the most surprising thing so far has been the reception the truck is getting. People have been lining up since our second day of operation. We really didn’t expect it to catch on that quickly but are very happy that it did. We are working hard everyday to improve the service and keep the wait times down.

5) What kung fu moves can you do whilst eating a taco?

I have nearly perfected my five fingers of death punch but I haven’t figured out a way to do that and serve tacos simultaneously. Guess it is a work in progress.

Tacos Santana caters Jesse Thorn’s wedding

Posted by Cyrus Farivar on September 11, 2008

Man, this guy is my hero.

Why? Not only because he has a great podcast and has interviewed everyone from Ira Glass to Ted Leo. Not only because his podcast was picked up by WNYC and then PRI. Not only because he’s America’s Radio Sweetheart. Not only because his wedding was covered by The Grey Lady herself. But mostly, because his wedding was catered by, yes, a taco truck.

The Times neglected to mention which truck provided the food. Because, as we all know, not all trucks are created equal. A closer look at the above photo reveals it to be Tacos Santana, which appears to be part of the El Tonayense empire. Good pick, Jesse!

San Francisco: Los Compadres Taco Truck is saved!

Posted by Cyrus Farivar on June 1, 2008

Ok, I’m a little late to this one, but apparently a taco truck right here in my own backyard — Los Compadres (Hayes St. and Polk St. near San Francisco’s City Hall Plaza — was going to be removed as per the request of the lot’s owner, Central Parking Systems. A concerned and intrepid taco aficionado, Matthew Goudeau, started a Facebook group and a small campaign to persuade CPS to let the truck continue to serve its delicious wares, and I’m happy to announce that it worked!

The San Francisco Sentinel and Goudeau’s Facebook group report that the truck has been saved! I just might have to go over there next week to get a celebratory taco — or three.