Ten Reasons Bay Area Street Food Will Expand in 2011

Gil Riego Jr.
Matt Cohen is the organizer of San Francisco's Off the Grid street food events and a consultant for the mobile vending industry via the SF Cart Project.

John Birdsall
Off the Grid's Matt Cohen.
​A year ago I gave you "5 Reasons People Will Tell You Street Food is Dead in 2010." The core of my argument was this:
Street food is less a trend than the leading edge of a change in our relationship with food.... Street food is about giving people adventure, immediacy, intimacy (with the people who cook that food), and a diversity of flavors that you can't easily find in one restaurant.

Do I still believe that? Absolutely. People care more than ever about artisanal foods made with care and served at a reasonable price. Our work at Off the Grid and the SF Cart Project has been about facilitating entrepreneurs who want to make great food for our communities. Our driving principle has been creating win-win opportunities for mobile food entrepreneurs to sell food to customers (and neighborhoods) who care about supporting small businesses making creative, value-priced food. Will the street food market change in 2011? Definitely. Will those qualities change? Not if we have our way.

Here are the 10 big trends we see from the street in 2011. Some of them are already happening, others might take until 2012 to really take hold, but one thing's for sure: If you thought 2010 was a good year for street food, just wait till 2011.

1. Street food is here to stay.

If you look around at the rest of the world, street food is an important part of people's lives, providing value and convenience to people who are too busy for or who just can't afford the restaurant experience. The need for that, especially in these economic times, is not changing any time soon. As a result, there should be a steady flow of entrepreneurial-minded chefs and restaurateurs making their way out onto the street for some time to come. Will all of them get writeups? Frankly, no, but the good ones will. With the rise of hyperlocal reporting sites (SFoodie, Grub Street, Eater) and user review sites (Yelp, Foodspotting) it is likely that these worthy new businesses will get noticed more quickly than ever before without the need for a significant PR budget.

Chris MacArthur
2. Adding amenities to grouping.
You don't need me to tell you that eating while getting rained on sucks. As much as I'd like it to, rain does not, in fact, add flavor to street food. There's a fine line with mobile food, where the amenities offered begin to mimic the brick-and-mortar locations that street food is intended to break from. But it is undeniable that you should be able to enjoy having a beer with your food, that there should be some reasonable way of being protected from the elements while purchasing (and eating), and that eating off your lap can be endearing, but doing it in a 30-mile-per-hour wind is not a positive guest experience. The diversity, value, and fun of street-food courts is only going to grow over the next year, but we'll be doing it with an eye toward more refined concepts, greater amenities, and keeping people's focus where it belongs: on the food.

3. Chefs with serious chops expanding the definition of street food.

The street food business is a great way for inexperienced restaurateurs to get into the restaurant business. It's also a great place for experienced line cooks or sous chefs who simply want to do their own thing. While the culinary aspects of street food may be appealing to novice chefs, the limited menus and small overhead are extremely appealing to experienced chefs wary about the minutia of opening a first restaurant. Street food doesn't demand stemware and porcelain, so experienced chefs who are committed to the food business for the long haul understand that they can test a concept, refine their food, establish a name, and then (if they choose) expand to a brick-and-mortar space with an established clientele, a business history, and cash flow.

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