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Street Eats

Author: Cerissa Kim and Petter Westby
May, 2017 Issue

America has a long history with mobile food. Some might say it started in the 1860s with chuck wagons traversing the Old West. The 1950s brought ice cream trucks, followed by the 1960s “roach coaches.” Taco trucks, more closely resembling the food trucks we’re familiar with today, become popular in the Los Angeles area in the 1970’s. About 10 years ago, when the recession hit hard, a demand for cheap eats, and more affordable venues over brick-and-mortar sites spurred a movement. By around 2008, food trucks started to take off, with social media playing an instrumental role in the rapid growth and success of this unique business endeavor.

Known for being a foodie destination, the North Bay is no stranger to palates seeking interesting food experiences. The diversity of the cuisine offered by our region’s food trucks speaks to the types of taste adventures residents and visitors are seeking. 

Off the Grid

Off the Grid started by bringing groups of street food vendors together to create an experience that would allow neighbors, friends and families to connect around a shared space. “We work hard to develop services and products that change the way people think about going out,” says Ben Himlan, director of business development.

Their first event was the 2010 edition of Off the Grid Fort Mason Center in San Francisco. It’s California’s largest mobile food event and is still in operation today.

In the North Bay, Off the Grid operates in Larkspur every Sunday at Larkspur Landing. Seven trucks offer diners savory eats, and one provides sweet treats.

Cities and community partners often approach the company to help them activate public spaces. “They find our events add vibrancy and engagement to their communities, fulfilling many needs,” says Himlan. One of Off the Grid’s goals is to create spaces where organic interaction occurs between friends, family and strangers, around a diverse food experience. They target locations where there is the possibility of establishing an economic vitality for the community. Some of their locations are in underserved neighborhoods or areas where their food truck events activate already existing resources such as retailers or places where they can include artists and musicians to draw a bigger crowd. They create a synergy with other businesses and the merchant community.

In aligning with redevelopment or economic development plans for a community, their events bring exposure to an area. They sometimes set up in a vacant space, or in an area where a national chain has pulled out. By bringing vibrancy to these spaces, they create a forum where the community can interact with one another and create the option for people to stay in their neighborhood and enjoy a night out with good food, right in their own backyard.

 Off the Grid has developed their own systems and software utilizing high-level analytics to determine what cuisines are in the highest demand for any given location. They also taste test before bringing a vendor on board. “We make sure they meet our standards. As a company of ‘foodies,’ you can be sure we’re picky,” says Himlan. “There are stipulations and parameters that govern our business model, as well as the mobile food producers we work with. Each city has unique regulations regarding recurring events, and mobile food producers. We have a team of regulatory specialists who use research and outreach to ensure compliance on all levels at all of our events.” 

The Corral

It might seem that a charitable foundation would be a strange partner for a food truck venture, but Terri Niles, project coordinator for the Peter A. and Vernice H. Gasser Foundation, has found that Century Center Food Corral in Napa is a perfect match for her organization’s mission. Founded by lifelong residents, the Gassers’ influence and business acumen contributed to the growth of the city of Napa, the foundation is committed to the well-being of Napa-its people and places.

The New Century Center, where a movie theater is located, had lots of open spaces that were undeveloped. Niles, who has a daughter and a sister in Portland, Oregon, visited food trucks there and thought having food trucks at the Center would be a great way to make use of unoccupied space. When she first applied for a permit from the city, word spread to the newspaper and others in the close-knit community of Napa, and she promptly received phone calls from food trucks interested in participating. “I wanted to make sure we had diverse offerings, so the participating vendors would complement each other and all do good business,” says Niles. Two Mexican food trucks signed on in the beginning, Taco Addiction and Mercadito. For both businesses, becoming part of The Corral boosted their viability. “Having a consistent revenue stream keeps their businesses going. It’s satisfying to know we’re doing our part in keeping people employed,” says Niles.

The city permit allows for no more than five trucks at a time, though more participate due to a rotating schedule of vendors that includes Taco Addiction, Mercadito, Nurnberger, Crossroads Chicken, Torte Gigantes and others. Food trucks are on-site seven days a week. The venture has been a success by everyone’s standards, attracting a wide variety of people ranging from college students, seniors, EMTs and professionals. Every morning on The Food Corral’s Facebook page, Niles lists the vendors that will be on-site that day. Their number of ‘Likes’ and ‘Friends’ are steadily growing, even though their marketing efforts have been minimal. Each truck also has their own social media outlets where they post promotional material and keep in touch with their followers. 

The Block

Cody Hildreth, founder and creator of The Block in Petaluma, is a huge fan of food and cooking. He’s an avid home chef with cookbook-lined shelves featuring Thomas Keller and Alice Waters. He worked in the medical field for many years and though his work was tough, he enjoyed it. But when his then two-year old son was diagnosed with cancer and was hospital bound for two years, Hildreth decided to look at alternative jobs that might feed his passion for food. Help from the Carousel Fund, an organization that provides financial assistance to families in Petaluma with critically-ill children, enabled Hildreth to be with his son during his years of treatment. During those long hours of waiting, he began to formulate a business plan for a food venture that would include a brick and mortar pizza place, a beer garden, food trucks and a play space for kids.

With his son two years out of treatment, Hildreth can now direct his focus to the new venture that he created with three partners.

 It took him a while to find the right location. The city of Petaluma had strict regulations regarding zoning, and Hildreth had certain location criteria in mind for The Block, including being at a spot that was both close to downtown and a SMART train stop. When he first came across the space where the The Block is currently located, he searched out the property owners and left them a handwritten note telling them what he wanted to do with the property. He met with them, shared his vision, and the owners jumped onboard. The location is on the west side of Petaluma, sandwiched between apartments above retail shops, Dairyman’s Feed and Supply Co., Sonoma Cast Stone and the Railroad Museum.

 The beer garden consists of a building that houses 30 taps and a large covered patio area with seating. Hildbreth plans to feature wine and beers that aren’t readily available and will also keep four or five popular macro beers on tap. He envisions The Block will be appealing to anyone who wants to be adventurous in the culinary world, but also sees it as a gathering place for families, friends and people who live in the area. “We will be able to satisfy anyone with the offerings we will have available,” says Hildbreth. “Everyone can get whatever food they like, the kids have a play area, plus there’s family games like horseshoes. It’s a communal atmosphere and everything is designed with that in mind.” There’s picnic style seating, a fire pit and fire tables with chaise lounges where people can meet, eat, drink, talk and have fun.

So far the line up of food trucks complementing the beer garden include: BBQ, Mexican, duck, lobster, fried chicken, grilled cheese, specialty French fries and more. The trucks will be at The Block on a rotating basis and will advertise which trucks will be on site at any given time through social media. Each quarter they’ll evaluate their line up of trucks and rearrange or add new trucks as needed.

This set up at The Block is different from most food truck venues due the permanency of the beer garden and the brick and mortar pizza establishment. “This is more like a restaurant that brings trucks in. It was designed with family games and a music venue in mind, a permanent place where people can gather and relax,” says Hildreth.

Bruschetteria

Executive Chef John McConnell says he has a farm-to-truck approach to planning the menu for The Bruschetteria Food Truck. The truck is just one of many successful projects started by Gary Erikson and Kit Crawford, owners and visionaries of Clif Bar & Co. You’ll find The Bruschetteria Food Truck parked outside the Clif Family Winery tasting room in St. Helena, where their welcoming staff can pair wine to any fresh and delicious dish from the truck. McConnell has access to the Clif Family Farm, which is CCOF certified organic and Food Alliance Certified and is populated with produce promoting plant diversity and sustainability.

 After a visit to Italy, Erikson and Crawford became interested in bringing some of the culinary specialties they enjoyed back home to Napa Valley. One dish in particular was large format bruschetta designed to be served family style. Erikson and Crawford wanted food with minimal interpretation, that is true to its origins and utilizes quality local ingredients. The wanted to fill a food niche in the area that was yet unrealized and didn’t take customers away from the local brick-and-mortar restaurants. What emerged was the idea of a food truck that is in keeping with their personal commitment to serving farm fresh food along with excellent customer service.  

 From the custom shaped bread from Model bakery used for the bruschetta, to the red speckled corn grown from seeds brought back from Italy by Erikson and Crawford, there is a story behind every dish that is served at the Bruschetteria Food Truck. McConnell, a culinary veteran of notable establishments such as Restaurant Terra and The Hillstone Restaurant Group, was tasked with designing the food truck kitchen from scratch. There were multiple challenges to designing a work area consisting of only 16 x 4 feet but what he created was the foundation for a successful enterprise. Word of mouth and a write-up in Food & Wine have made Bruschetteria a food destination. “This is a tough demographic. People here have a refined palate and there are lots of great offerings around,” says McConnell.

 McConnell and his team are always setting new benchmarks for themselves in terms of sales and culinary offerings. They keep abreast of social media sites using applications like Squares and Yelp ratings as a metric for improving their services. He also notes that he and his staff find working for Erikson and Crawford to be a positive and rewarding experience. “They strive to bring out the best of your abilities,” says McConnell. His staff has to wear many hats because unlike in a restaurant, they must all work the front and the back of the house. “Cooks are passionate about what they do but rarely do we get to see the customers enjoying their food. Here the feedback is almost instant and it’s a gratifying experience,” says McConnell.

the fig rig

On the Square in Sonoma, the distinctive signage for the girl & the fig (all lowercase with an ampersand), marks a landmark fine-dining destination for locals and wine country visitors for the past 20 years. Now the restaurant has a new mobile offspring in “the fig rig” food truck, which made its debut in May 2016 when it pulled up to an all-weekend event at Cornerstone Sonoma. More than 6,000 visitors attended the event. “While it was like being thrown into the pool at the deep end, it was truly a great weekend for us and very much an accelerated learning experience regarding all aspects of operating a food truck,” says Sondra Bernstein, CEO and proprietor of the girl & the fig and its sister restaurants. “During an offsite managers’ retreat we divided the group into smaller teams and challenged each team to present an idea addressing how we can further improve our customers’ experience. And that is how the fig rig concept was born.”

A vehicle was acquired and custom equipped for their ‘figgy’ food truck cooking needs. Parallel to the truck customization effort, the fig rig task force worked diligently on crafting fig rig menus. A new and exciting challenge associated with the menus is that they must be in line with the rigid quality standards of the brick and mortar establishments, but also be reflective of the various demands of their mobile audiences. “Our menus are totally customizable, and designed to meet our customers’ vision of Wine Country dining with a French passion and with the same level of service and hospitality that has come to be expected in our restaurants,” says Bernstein.

 “As we gain more operational experience and assess the performance indicators under the same scrutiny as with our other restaurants, we are honing in on how we can tweak the go-to-market strategy to optimally please our customers while running a sound business,” says Bernstein. “We will continue to cater events such as birthday parties, graduation parties, rehearsal dinners, anniversary parties, wine release parties, corporate outings, and such, but we will also look to increase our focus on larger venues with a greater audience of customers.”

Here to Stay

“As food trucks have entered the mainstream, the public enthusiasm has only grown. Today’s food truck operators are all entrepreneurs just starting out in building their dreams, and it gives the public a chance enjoy closer interaction to the people that nourish them,” says Himlan. With food trucks servicing a broad portfolio of communities, with events curated in residential neighborhoods, commercial corridors, retail shopping centers, business parks and private venues, it’s no wonder food trucks are finding success and won’t be going away anytime soon.

Where to Go

Bruschertteria

709 Main St., St. Helena

11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, except Monday

Wine and Dine Wed. open until 7 p.m.

Available for rent for evening events

www.cliffamily.com/food/

Dogs welcome on the patio

the fig rig

Ramen on the Rig

Some Wednesdays (check website)

18010 Sonoma Highway (Highway 12), Boyes Hot Springs.

Available for rent for events

www.thefigrig.com

The Block

20 Grey Street, Petaluma

General Operating Hours

Thur - Fri: 12 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Saturday: 11 a.m. to 11p.m.

Sunday: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Truck Hours

Thur - Fri:  4pm - 10pm

(Beer Garden & Pizza only12 p.m. to 4 p.m.)

Sat: 11a.m. to 4 p.m., 5 p.m. to 11p.m.

Sun: 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., 3 p.m. to 9 p.m.

www.theblockpetaluma.com

The Corral

195 Gasser Drive, Napa

M, W, Th, F Sun 11 a.m. 

Noon until Dark T and Sat, April through November

www.facebook.com/centurycenterfoodcorral/ 

Off The Grid 

San Francisco

Fort Mason Center

2 Marina Blvd.

5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday (early March – late Oct.) 

Larkspur Landing

2257 Larkspur Landing Circle

11a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday 

www.offthegrid.com

 

 

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