Moving

25 meals vehicles returning to San Francisco for Off the Grid

There was a time when Señor Sisig, the popular Filipino fusion food truck, dispatched a fleet of six trucks to all corners of San Francisco throughout the week. It wasn’t uncommon to spot customers fidgeting on their phones while they queued up at the truck’s regular haunts around SoMa or FiDi neighborhoods. But that was more than two years ago, before a disappearing lunch crowd transformed the once-bustling districts into a ghost town.

The lack of customers around those enclaves eventually led co-owners Evan Kidera and Gil Payumo to re-evaluate their fleet of six and cut it down to four trucks. It also forced them to tighten their availability to serve their ever-popular California sisig burritos or crunch wraps to just a few spots around SF.

“There was nobody down there and it wasn’t even worth sending trucks down to our permitted locations, so we had to pivot,” Kidera said of his former downtown San Francisco outpost. “I think we were in a unique situation where we probably had more food trucks than anybody and to find six locations, seven days a week, for lunch and dinner was pretty much impossible.”

Customers line up at a Señor Sisig truck in 2019. During the pandemic, the popular Filipino fusion business reduced its fleet of six trucks to four as lunch crowds around San Francisco diminished.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGate.com

Kidera said that the fleet took a financial blow during the pandemic but the overall business was fortunate in that Señor Sisig had opened its first brick-and-mortar at 990 Valencia St. in the Mission District months before the shutdown. Then, a second location at 1628 Webster St. in Oakland opened in early 2021. It was a shift from Señor Sisig’s primary model, but one that pushed the business to continue to grow.

Still, running a food truck business in the Bay Area hasn’t come without its own set of glitches, despite its inherent takeout model. The dependency on lunch crowds forced some operators around the US to join third-party delivery apps or do home deliveries in suburbs, like Kona Ice of North Marin did, to stay connected with customers. It’s a trade that Matt Cohen, CEO and founder of Off the Grid, believes isn’t easy and necessitates being both “nimble and flexible.”

“Food trucks sometimes get forgotten in the challenges that they face,” Cohen told SFGATE. “You have to be able to communicate where you’re going to be and be able to get [people] to come out and support you. The ones with smaller audiences struggled more because of that.”

The California sisig burrito served at Señor Sisig.  During the pandemic, the popular Filipino fusion business reduced its fleet of six trucks to four as lunch crowds around San Francisco diminished.

The California sisig burrito served at Señor Sisig. During the pandemic, the popular Filipino fusion business reduced its fleet of six trucks to four as lunch crowds around San Francisco diminished.

Patrick Beaudouin

Off the Grid markets, now in their 12th year, are advantageous to participating vendors who, before the pandemic, could expect thousands of guests at the organization’s largest markets at Park Presidio and Fort Mason. After a two-year hiatus, Off the Grid’s Fort Mason market returns April 1.

In June 2020, Off the Grid planned a Fort Mason comeback, albeit with a smaller-scale project called Fort Mason Center Food Spot. Days after announcing the event, a spokesperson told SFGATE that it was canceled due to “unforeseen circumstances,” but eventually launched the project at Fort Mason that same month. Throughout the pandemic, Off the Grid has kept a low profile with reduced markets and days it operated. Previously, it ran 12 different markets around the Bay Area, but Cohen estimates just about 20% returned, though more markets are anticipated to open in early April.

“Our company was founded on the idea of ​​the power of in-person gatherings,” Cohen said. “The lack or inability to exercise that muscle for the last two years has been something like a phantom limb.”

When the market opens Friday evening, 25 vibrant trucks are expected to set up shop at one of Fort Mason’s sizeable parking lots, where guests will once again see some of the tenured food partners, like Señor Sisig and The Chairman, along with newcomers Vegan Mob , Media Noche and Papalote, plus more, which will join the existing rotation. This time around, the event will only focus on mobile vendors and not include tents, to help “maximize the potential benefit” of the food truck industry, Cohen said.

Dominic's food truck was born out of the pandemic when owner Chris DeGrande added a truck to his business.

Dominic’s food truck was born out of the pandemic when owner Chris DeGrande added a truck to his business.

KRM Photography/ @karnamarie

Dominic’s, owned by Chris DeGrande, is one of the newer vendors, having joined Off the Grid beginning in November 2020. Before the pandemic, DeGrande’s background was in hosting banquets and catering large events where he served a dash of Italian and American staples. But during the summer of 2020, he decided to buy his first food truck, which would become an extension of his banquet facility, Dominic’s at Oyster Point, and one way to keep his staff employed amid some of his most challenging days.

“The food truck came about because the pandemic shut us down completely,” DeGrande said of his banquet and catering operations. “I never had [one] and it’s a great complement to what we’re doing. It was a huge help to be able to keep our employees working.”

Never in his wildest dreams did DeGrande fathom owning a mobile business. He reckoned that running banquets and catering were much easier than managing a food truck or restaurant as the number of plates needed on any given day was already accounted for by a caterer. While DeGrande views his experience in catering as an asset, especially with regards to Off the Grid, there were hard lessons along the way about operating an active food truck in the Bay Area.

DeGrande shared the vexing steps needed to run his food truck in San Francisco County, which he described as time-consuming, from clearing regulations with the fire department to applying for a number of permits. Señor Sisig’s Kidera, now a 12-year veteran, shared that a common misconception of running a business on wheels is that people assume it’s a lot easier than it appears.

The filet mignon sliders from Dominic's food truck.  Chris DeGrande, owner of Dominic's, added a truck to his business model during the pandemic.

The filet mignon sliders from Dominic’s food truck. Chris DeGrande, owner of Dominic’s, added a truck to his business model during the pandemic.

KRM Photography/ @karnamarie

“There’s a lot of moving pieces that make it a challenging business to run, and to run more than one, let alone six is, is a task,” Kidera said. “I look back and I’m like, ‘How did I even do six?’ That’s crazy… but you know, we’ve done it. Right now, the plan is to keep the four and continue to send those out.”

One way food truck vendors went around San Francisco’s permitting rules was to join Off the Grid, or other markets around the city, that hold lease agreements with landlords. In the case of Off the Grid, each market varies, but Cohen said he pays rent to landlords that range from specific cities to various institutions to private landowners. According to San Francisco Business Portal, food trucks that operate at Off the Grid markets must pay the organization a fee or percentage of their sales to participate.

What remains to be seen is whether the lunch crowd will come back. The answer is still unknown, at least for now, but it’s one Cohen hopes to realize with the Fort Mason homecoming.

“Fort Mason is special because of the setting,” Cohen said. “It’s the location that does the best job at capturing the spirit that we channel with every single one of our experiences. We’re really bringing back a good number of lunch markets in anticipation of people returning, at least to some extent, to work.”

DeGrande and Kidera are both excited to see the turnout at Fort Mason as they join others in the food industry who made it out the other side. Kidera, for one, is thrilled to meet many of the new operators, especially the ones who pivoted to mobile trucks amid the pandemic.

“Some of the best stuff comes out of these challenging times,” he said. “It’ll be interesting to see what the new landscape of the food truck industry is in San Francisco.”

Off the Grid returns to Fort Mason on April 1 and is scheduled to run each Friday from 5 pm to 10 pm

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