Matt Cohen, the Guy Who Brought Street Food to San Francisco
On Monday, during the final session of the SF Street Food Festival conference, Matt Cohen will sit on a panel discussing mobile vendor economic policy. It's a modest honor for the man credited with feeding San Francisco's new-found passion for street food. But then, the 31-year-old organizer (with La Cocina) of Off the Grid is a modest guy.
John Birdsall Matt Cohen: The Off the Grid organizer thinks S.F.'s street food has morphed into "a more professional culinary experience."
Cohen grew up in West Hollywood, got a bachelor's degree in history from Atlanta's Emory University, and ended up ― after scoring a master's in education ― as a teacher. He spent three years in Japan, schooling students in English. Japan is where Cohen had the epiphany that drives him these days, as he works to expand the original Friday night Off the Grid at Fort Mason Center, and is poised to launch three more weekly Off the Grid happenings in city parks.
Odd, since Cohen strikes you more as an accountant, a quietly brainy-looking guy who'd be more comfortable in an office cube, scrolling through spreadsheets, than serving as ringmaster for the forces swirling around San Francisco's mobile-food zeitgeist. And though he rents a room here and typically spends three days a week in S.F., Cohen consider home Davis, where he shares a place with his girlfriend of a few years.
Cohen's relationship with street food began, like many obsessions in San Francisco, with a bowl of ramen. Before he managed to break through the net of local bureaucratic barriers to make Off the Grid a reality, Cohen himself was an aspiring street-food vendor. In early 2008, Cohen and a business partner rolled out a short-lived late-night ramen truck called Tabe (at the time, one Chowhounder called it the city's best, and Yelpers went star crazy). We recently asked Cohen about his experiences as a failed vendor, his work as a consultant for other mobile vendors (through Cohen's San Francisco Cart Project, a site that boasts S.F.'s best daily street-food finer), and the current state of San Francisco street food.
SFoodie: What ever gave you the idea to start a ramen truck?
Cohen: When I lived in Japan for three years ― from 2002 to 2005 ― I fell in love with ramen. It was so great, especially the area that I lived in, which was near Fukuoka. Fukuoka is famous for its ramen, especially tonkotsu ramen. Living in Asia, you realize there's great street food everywhere.
So when I returned to the States I was a hotel manager for 3 ½ or 4 years, at the W. That's when I had an epiphany for street food. This was in 2008. The kernel of the idea was remembering that great ramen, but putting it in a cool truck and driving it around to the clubs and bars where people would want great food ― the idea behind a mobile truck is that you can just drive it to where people want it. It makes perfect sense. I started Tabe in January of 2008. We were planning to open a handful of high-end ramen trucks.
Chris MacArthur/SF Weekly Off the Grid is slated to expand to three city parks.
My business partner at the time, John Branderhorst, and myself. We were going to roll out a website, with elements of what the Cart Project is now ― in a lot of ways we were trying to do what I'm working toward right now. The concept was to sell late at night in San Francisco. We thought for a while we could get late-night mobile catering approved, but it was clear that was not going to happen. At the same time the banks were crashing around us ― it was the summer of 2008, right in the middle of when the credit crisis happened ― so we decided to put the concept on hold and wait to see what happened.
At that time none of the mobile catering information was available online. A lot of the details I've worked hard to spread ― what the rules are, where to go ― were very unclear. So after having spent 6 or 7 months looking into it, I hung out my shingle, with the idea that I could help aspiring vendors get their business started.
But after Tabe didn't work out, what was it about street food that didn't make you want to wash your hands of it?
I really have a strong belief in the core concept of street food, period. I felt it was just a matter of time before other people caught on. [Seoul on Wheels vendor] Julia Yoon caught on to it before me. There were the Kogi guys in L.A., but [Yoon] was really far ahead of the curve. Since then the city has really caught up with her and her business. She had this idea to do pure, upscale Korean food out of a truck ― but the market had to get used to the idea, plus she couldn't execute the way she wanted to for a long time. She was easily a year or more ahead of the curve.