Matt Cohen got so swept up in the mobile food truck frenzy that he quit his job in hotel management in 2008 to cook and sell high-end ramen from a pop-up food cart.
He closed that venture within six months, but not because his passion for the mobile food business waned. Rather, it evolved into a number of new businesses.
Sacramentans likely know Cohen best as the man behind Off the Grid, a company that organizes al fresco events where people dine on food truck fare and soak up a sense of community. Off the Grid started producing events locally last summer at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, near Rancho Cordova’s City Hall, at The Barn and River Walk Park in West Sacramento and over at Folsom Premium Outlets.
Yet Cohen has spun off a variety of other companies since launching Off the Grid in 2010 at Fort Mason Center in San Francisco. The business started with public events but expanded next into private catering.
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“Often, people are interested in booking one truck, but I was interested in aggregating them together and being able to create that experience of choice in a way that feels different than a traditional caterer,” Cohen said. “So we started doing catering in that first year, and it was just a direct result of people attending the markets and wanting to privatize that experience.”
Even as Cohen moved into private catering, he continued to look for vibrant public spaces where people naturally gathered to experience community spirit. Off the Grid developed more than 70 markets a week around the Bay Area, Cohen said, from destination locales such as Fort Mason and the Oakland Museum of California to small neighborhood-centered events such as 5M, the lunch stop in the Minna Street tunnel at Fifth Street in San Francisco.
Not all the spaces could squeeze in a variety of vendors, given the size of the food trucks. Some used pop-up tents to solve the problem initially, but in 2013, Cohen began developing a structure that could be packed away daily but looked more substantial than a tent.
“We actually started a type of construction called Cubert,” Cohen said, “… an 8-foot-by-8-foot-by-9-foot tall structure where all the sides open up, and it can be moved around by a forklift. We actually patented it and we’re manufacturing them.”
While developing and marketing Cubert, Cohen continued to open new sites for Off the Grid and cultivated clients who wanted private catering. That business, which now numbers roughly 20 clients a week, led to an ongoing food-service engagement at Google’s Mountain View headquarters.
The massive multinational wanted to offer the tens of thousands of employees on its main campus the option of eating at food trucks, Cohen said, but it also wanted transparency and input on how food was sourced and how it was prepared.
Cohen said he felt it would be logistically impossible to do that through third-party vendors, so within six months, he and his team developed and launched a company named The Whole Cart. It began serving Google employees in May 2015 – and now offers food from 25 trucks.
Spinning off The Whole Cart allowed Off the Grid to maintain its core values of supporting third-party businesses and aggregating them to create great experiences, Cohen said. Yet he didn’t want The Whole Cart to lose the spirit of entrepreneurship that was prevalent at Off the Grid events. His solution was to have the trucks run by individuals who aspired to be food entrepreneurs, creating a two-year apprenticeship for them through a business offshoot he called Instrucktional.
We’re constantly thinking about how you build services, how you build experiences that are temporary in nature and that then go away.
Matt Cohen, founder of Off the Grid
“We take them through the process of learning basic cooking skills to working on a truck to managing a truck to working on their concept,” Cohen said, “and then they get to launch their own truck for a year, and then for the second year, they work on business skills and how financing would work, so by the time they leave in two years … they can take their whole brand and their whole concept with them, and they can launch their own business. We’re working on a way to get them financing.”
The 37-year-old Cohen has street cred with mobile food vendors because, after closing up his ramen cart and before launching Off the Grid, he worked as a consultant. He helped startup food truck operators navigate the often-frustrating regulatory environment in San Francisco. A number of his former clients – The Chairman, Curry Up Now and Señor Sisig – still operate well-known food trucks or have moved into brick-and-mortar restaurants.
They also signed up to sell food at his Off the Grid events when he launched them, paying a base fee and a percentage of sales to participate. The markets also had lured food truck operators and diners from the Sacramento region, Cohen said, so it was natural for his business to expand here. He began identifying partners and working on permitting in June 2015.
The novelty of food trucks wore off for diners years ago, Cohen said, so he looks for venue partners who can add value to the food experience. At the Crocker, it’s the art and the courtyard. At Folsom Premium Outlets, it’s shopping. At Rancho Cordova City Hall, it’s the tree-lined parking area and the Sacramento Children’s Museum.
Off the Grid used its reputation and connections when it came time to negotiate local venues. The company already had worked with Simon Property Group, the owner of Folsom Premium Outlets, for markets in the Bay Area. A spokesman for the outlet center, Peter McCormack, told me that the lunchtime events, held every Saturday, have “been going fantastically” and will continue for at least three more months.
Over at the Crocker, chief executive Lial Jones had heard about Off the Grid’s success at the Oakland Museum, so when Cohen’s team approached her, she was intrigued.
We looked at it just as a way to perhaps drive attendance to the museum, people who might not otherwise visit.
Lial Jones, chief executive at the Crocker Art Museum
“Oakland talks quite a bit about their partnership with Off the Grid because it is one of their biggest drivers of visitation,” Jones said. “We looked at it just as a way to perhaps drive attendance to the museum, people who might not otherwise visit, and we saw several hundred people come every week. It wasn’t as much as we had hoped.”
Still, Jones doesn’t rule out the idea of continuing to work with Off the Grid because it could be a matter of finding the right day and time. That’s the kind of experimentation that Off the Grid likes to do before giving up on a space, Cohen said.
“Our business is really built on innovation in the temporary event space and making things feel permanent for the time that they’re there,” he said. “We don’t leave a trace behind when we leave. We’re constantly thinking about how you build services, how you build experiences that are temporary in nature and that then go away.”