The street food scene has become an increasingly popular fixture in the Bay Area. Unlike similar mobile food markets in Portland (called “pods” ) and LA, street food regulations in San Francisco and other parts of the Bay Area make it challenging for local entrepreneurs to get their food on the move. For example, in Menlo Park a 100-year old law makes it nearly impossible for food trucks to operate. But it’s not just antiquated regulations that present obstacles for food truck vendors. It is commonly assumed that street vending is a more economical option than traditional brick and mortar establishments, however, city regulations and permitting costs and fees prove otherwise.

With the vending boom in the Bay Area, municipal governments have had to respond to the increase in demand for permits, as well as the interests of property owners and consumers. Prior to 2007, the initial permit fee in San Francisco cost a whopping $9,300 simply to operate. In 2010 the City adopted a new ordinance intended to streamline the processes and reduce fees. While these regulation have reduced some of the permit costs, the ordinance requires notice be delivered to businesses within 300 feet of the proposed permit. The notice requirement revealed that property interests, particularly in areas of San Francisco with the highest rents, were fiercely against food vendors setting up shop in their backyard. Property interests contend that mobile food vendors take away valuable customers and that they are “free riders”  because they do not pay rent.

And this anti-vendor sentiment is not a new phenomenon in urban spaces. Even cities known for street cart culture have had ongoing battles with the vending question. In 1934, New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia took a stance against street vending. Blanket legislation pushed vendors off the street and into designated market spaces vendors were required to pay for. With a disconnection from the city streets, the foot traffic from consumers dwindled and many pushcart businesses were forced to close.

The fight for public space and the right to vend remains a hotly contested topic in New York City. Legal advocacy groups like the Urban Justice Center Street Vendor Project are working towards creating a vendors’ movement, promoting the contributions vendors make to the City and also inform vendors of their legal rights. Who knew that the gourmet goods you enjoy from a Street Vendor have been such a point of contention for decades?

So, take the complex web of county, municipal and state vending regulations and enter Off The Grid SF  owner, Matt Cohen. Cohen is a master of navigating food truck regulations for vendors in the Bay Area. The concept is simple; develop a vending-friendly space and consumers will follow. Off the Grid handles the hairy permitting process, logistics and necessary infrastructure for the markets. The next step is making the market inviting for foodies. Off the Grid provides seating, lighting, bathrooms and entertainment which make all the difference in creating a community market vibe. The organization’s market model gives vendors a chance to vend legally and healthfully while building the community and city fabric.

Off the Grid hosts 19 markets throughout the Bay Area, two of which are located in the East Bay. The most recent addition to their East Bay markets opened in Hayward this past summer. On its opening night in August, over 2,500 people came out to enjoy the diverse selection of foods. Hayward City Councilman Mark Salinas has called the market a “complete success.” Downtown Hayward businesses have reported record sales on Monday nights and the market steadily draws about 1,500 people each week.   This relationship is what OTG owner Matt Cohen calls as “win-win”  for the city and the truck owners-“our goal is to support small businesses and create opportunities for the communities that we work with.”  The food truck market compliments the bustling brick and mortar eateries in downtown Hayward and the city is looking to expand into other public spaces.

Aside from the gourmet goods, the market has other benefits. Cohen sees the market as an opportunity to bring life to underutilized spaces. A parking lot by day, the “triangle”  at D Street and Mission Blvd. transforms into a lively community center. As Cohen sees it, “we celebrate food but hopefully what we’re doing is creating really awesome community spaces where friends and neighbors can spontaneously run into one another.”  And these interactions are just what make the market vibe so unique. While waiting in line, perfect strangers become friends as they offer up advice on their favorite menu items and happy chatter can be heard as old friends reconnect through a chance encounter. So go ahead, support local business and rediscover your city, one food truck at a time!

Visit the OTG website for more info and sign up for email updates about markets near you!

Learn more about the Street Vendor experience in New York City:  Tale of a Taco Vendor