Have We Reached Gridlock? Matt Cohen On Food Trucks in 2011


The street food scene has exploded in the last two years, with a new food truck being born every day. But just how far this trend can go? Is it sustainable? Are we witnessing gridlock? If there's one person who would have some thoughts on the matter, it's Matt Cohen, the 31-year old founder of the SF Cart Project and Off the Grid, the mobile street food market. We caught up with Cohen after listening to him speak on the future of food trucks at last week's Commonwealth Club event "SF Street Food Update."

It seems like every week there is a new food truck launching in the city. Can there be too many?
When you look at the number of restaurants in the city and you compare it to the number of food trucks, no. There are only about 20–30 trucks out there right now, and I think there can be significantly more. The question is: What is the quality of these trucks? That is where Off the Grid tries to play a role.  We try to highlight new and interesting trucks, and we don’t want to lose the essence of what makes SF so special—quality artisan foods.

Did you anticipate how popular food trucks would become?
I feel like we’re just getting started, knock on wood. But it makes sense to me. If you think about the level of risk compared to opening a restaurant, it’s low. You’re not going to spend half a million dollars doing this. You’re not going to go into debt. 

San Franciscans love a backlash. Are you bracing yourself for one?
The person who is going to go to the food truck isn’t choosing it over a restaurant, they’re making an active choice to go. When people detect something is losing its authenticity, that’s when a backlash happens. My hope is that we can turn it into something like the markets in Singapore or Morocco—small businesses doing a limited range of products very well. Which is something SF is prone to supporting.

So trucks in every neighborhood, all the time?
I wouldn’t go that far. There needs to be a certain amount of scarcity. I don’t think there’s a need in every neighborhood. But we’d like to be operating five, maybe seven, days a week. Our plan is to always be able to offer a street food option at any day of the week.

What are your favorite trucks?
I can’t really say, but I can talk about two really cool trends. The first one is professional chefs ready to do their own thing, but not necessarily ready to open a restaurant. The second one is the home cook who is tired of their job and can afford to spend 50 grand to make the best of what their parents made.

Are there any foods you’d like to see go away?
Fusion tacos. There are only so many types of food you can cram into a tortilla. And cupcakes. If you’re getting into the cupcake business at this point, you have a hard road ahead of you. Pork belly.

What’s missing in the food truck scene?
Pizza. Hamburgers. Sushi. Grilled cheese. Shawerma. There are no halal food trucks. Soups and salads—that’s a huge opportunity.

Photo via bittermelon on Flickr

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