Off the Grid to close North Berkeley BART location

Francesca Ledesma/Staff

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Off the Grid, a company that brings together diverse food trucks for lively street food markets, is closing its location at the North Berkeley BART station because of slow business and high health permit costs. Its last event will be held Feb. 28.

Off the Grid began its business in June 2010 and currently operates in 28 different cities in the Bay Area. The company began organizing food markets in Berkeley in 2011, and in February 2014, it opened its branch at the North Berkeley BART station.

Ben Himlan, director of business development at Off the Grid, said the slowing of business for the company is related to the low foot traffic around its North Berkeley location, which stems from the area being primarily residential. Himlan added that the area lacks the “liveliness” that makes the company’s street food markets popular.

According to Himlan, Off the Grid’s food truck events benefit nearby businesses, including brick-and-mortar restaurants, because they draw in large numbers of people. He does not believe that there is significant business competition between the two but acknowledged that conflicts can sometimes arise because of parking and traffic congestion.

Stuart Baker, executive director of the Telegraph Business Improvement District, described the dynamics between brick-and-mortar restaurants and food trucks in Berkeley.

“Even if there was to be space (for the food trucks) somewhere, the challenge is that you have established businesses that pay very high rents and they compete with people who have no rent to pay, so it does make it a challenge for those who do pay rent,” Baker said.

One of the reasons that Off the Grid has difficulty in sustaining business in Berkeley in particular is because of costs associated with local health permits, Himlan explained. While all food trucks operating in Alameda County require a health permit, the city requires an additional city-specific health permit. According to Himlan, this permit is costly for food truck owners and causes them to be more hesitant to renew Berkeley health permits when business is slow.

When the number of food trucks in a market decreases, the overall event environment becomes less lively, and the market loses customers as a result, according to Himlan. Ultimately, Off the Grid and all its vendors must discontinue business at that site.

Closing business at particular sites is a “difficult (decision) to make and we don’t take them lightly,” Himlan said.

Off the Grid is currently scouting new sites in the city that will hopefully open around summertime, Himlan said. The company’s goal is to find a location in Berkeley where it can sustain an adequate customer base and work with the city on the flexibility of permit costs, while providing a variety of street foods in a lively environment.

Contact Anna Dell’Amico at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @adellamico_dc