Off the Grid food trucks may come to Menlo Park

Organization wants to hold weekly gatherings in Caltrain lot

Off the Grid, a highly popular Bay Area food truck gathering, might set up shop in Menlo Park this year.

The organization has applied for a use permit to operate in the Caltrain parking lot at the corner of Merrill Street and Ravenswood Avenue.

If the permit is approved, eight to 12 food trucks would convene on Wednesday nights from 5 to 9 p.m. by the Caltrain station, with live music from 6 to 8 p.m. Food vendors would rotate every week, bringing new faces and food to the market, but no alcohol.

Off the Grid currently coordinates 25 weekly markets, from San Francisco and Berkeley to Hayward and San Mateo. Many operate in parking lots or city gathering places, but this spring the city of Belmont approved an application for the mobile food truck extravaganza to take place on Monday evenings in that city's Caltrain parking lot.

"We were looking at other opportunities, and Menlo Park became tangible because the location is highly under-utilized," said Ben Himlan, Off the Grid's director for business development, about the organization's decision to expand. "And we were interested in going further down the Peninsula."

Food trucks became a contentious topic in Menlo Park in 2012 when the City Council floated a proposal to bring them to the city's downtown area. The idea met strong opposition from local business owners and residents.

"As a restaurant owner on Santa Cruz Ave. for over 12 years, I have to voice my displeasure on the plan for food trucks to occupy an area near my restaurant," Ali Elsafy, owner of Bistro Vida, wrote in a letter to the Almanac in June 2012. "Has anyone looked into the mess that these trucks will create? Are there going to be public toilets available? Is there going to be someone cleaning up the overflowing garbage cans at the end of the evening? Will someone be cleaning the mess off the stained sidewalks, or is it just going to look disgraceful until the morning? Who is paying for this clean up?" he asked.

"Also think of the businesses, homes and apartments in the immediate area that have to suffer from hearing engines running for hours and general disturbance of their standard of living."

Another letter, written by resident Cherie Zaslawsky and titled "The horrors of paseos and food trucks," bemoaned that food trucks would spoil downtown, the "jewel" of the Menlo Park community.

Off the Grid mailed two notifications in late November and early December to those living in the area near the Caltrain station. The first was a letter of intent from the city and notification of a public hearing to take place at the Planning Commission's next meeting on Monday, Jan. 13.

"There was some opposition from that," Himlan said. "People (were) highly concerned about the music and noise."

He added that some residents also expressed concern about drug use and drinking, though the market will not serve alcohol.

"It really is about those food trucks," he said. "They are the star of the show. It's not about partying. It's activating a space that otherwise wouldn't be activated on Wednesday nights and actually might deter any drug use that might be going on there."

Himlan said that after receiving critical response from the first mail notification, Off the Grid sent out a second postcard with further details to clarify what the market and music would be like.

"People are assuming we are having a concert out there," he said. "That's really not what it's about."

Off the Grid's application, which was submitted in October and will be heard by the Planning Commission on Jan. 13, includes details that address the concerns.

The application states that live music will be performed by typically one to two musicians playing mainly acoustic instruments for only a portion of the evening; the music will be heard via speakers facing the center of the market and with limited amplification. Any noise from food truck generators will be a "minimum." However, the application acknowledges that the noise may exceed ordinance limits.

The application also promises that Off the Grid staff will leave the market space "cleaner than (they) found it" and that vendors are required to provide garbage, recycling and compost cans in front of their vehicles. Setup would begin at 3:30 p.m. and cleanup would conclude around 10 p.m.

Off the Grid would also provide necessary lighting, and 200 chairs for customers.

The event would initially be approved for only one year "so that its operations can be evaluated prior to any long-term approval," according to the application.

"What we've learned from every location that we go to and every permit we go after is that the outreach portion is really important and the notification process is really important," Himlan said. "We don't ever try to sneak these things in … We're not looking to upset people; we're looking to build relationships."

This would be Off the Grid's first foray south of Belmont; it would join a scattered few other food truck events in the area.

The Willows Market in Menlo Park hosts a smaller-scale food truck night every Monday; many of those vendors also participate in Off the Grid.

Popular food-truck event Edgewood Eats in Palo Alto was shut down in April after it was forced to leave Edgewood Plaza and unable to find a new home. Moveable Feast and Mobile Wednesday, two roaming food-truck markets similar to Off the Grid, continue to operate in Palo Alto for weekday lunches.

In May Mountain View revamped its 57-year-old municipal code to allow food trucks in parts of downtown, but also added various permits and requirements.

The Menlo Park Planning Commission is scheduled to review Off the Grid's permit request at its Jan. 13 meeting, which starts at 7 p.m. in the council chambers at the Civic Center at 701 Laurel St.


Like this comment
Posted by Kate
a resident of Mountain View
on Jan 2, 2014 at 11:00 am

Where does the sales tax go for food trucks? Would the sales tax go to Menlo Park if they are selling in Menlo Park? This will hurt the restaurants in the area. If this is to be a regular occurance then the food trucks should have to pay "rent" or a permit price that at the very least matches what restaurants have to pay in rent.

Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 2, 2014 at 11:51 am

I'm hardly an expert but...
- no doubt they will have to purchase a food vending permit from Menlo
- probably have to do some sort of San Mateo county food permit as well
- probably an "event" permit from Menlo on top of that
- probably pay rent to Caltrain for the parking lot usage
- logic would be that they would pay the San Mateo Co. sales tax since both the business and the exchange of goods/cash will take place in SMCo.

Food truck gatherings are not a new event. I'm sure all of the appropriate fees will be collected.

Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of South of Midtown
on Jan 2, 2014 at 12:36 pm

Wish we had an event like this in southern Palo Alto where the restaurant selection is very poor.

Like this comment
Posted by Menlo Parker
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jan 2, 2014 at 1:02 pm

I would love to have a few more good food options in Menlo as I consistently go to other places like Palo Alto to satisfy my taste buds. A 1 year permit seems like a pretty low-risk trial period for the city to see if it's a good fit for our community.

Ditto all the questions posed by Elsafy and others - that said, they should be fairly easy to have addressed. This isn't Off the Grid's first rodeo. I've enjoyed their product offerings elsewhere and think it could be a nice compliment to our higher brow offerings here in Menlo.

While the noise could be irritating, it's in a good location that shouldn't impact very many residents/businesses any more than traffic/trains already do.

Like this comment
Posted by ChrisC
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 2, 2014 at 1:55 pm

I'm not sure this type of event hurts the restaurants. It's only once a week, and I think a lot of people come out for it that wouldn't normally be eating out that night. At least that's what I would do. There is usually such an interesting variety of food from food trucks. And, I don't see that they are any cheaper than other eating establishments. Sometimes they seem to be more expensive. The one at Edgewood Plaza was great, and I wish we could have one in Palo Alto.

Like this comment
Posted by Drago Brova
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jan 3, 2014 at 9:27 am

The restaurant owner has very legitimate concerns. Who will clean up all the garbage left not only by the food trucks but also by the guests. Not everyone will throw their plates and leftover in the garbage cans. There is also the issue of food and grease being spilled on the ground. Who cleans that up?

The food trucks can't just expect to show up and leave without cleaning up the mess they caused.

Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 3, 2014 at 10:16 am

If you've been to any other food truck gathering then you would know that the organizer takes care of trash and clean up. This is not like food truck stop at a construction site.

Like this comment
Posted by Jeff
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jan 3, 2014 at 10:48 am

I love Off The Grid! They put on a really fun, clean, social, nice event. I take Caltrain to work in Menlo Park. I never eat at the restaurants downtown but I would certainly attend this every week.

Like this comment
Posted by Mr.Recycle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 3, 2014 at 11:06 am

@Drago Brova - go visit Moveable Feast for lunch in Palo Alto on Tuesday. It is a civil, clean affair, nothing to be afraid of. Edgewood Eats was a great asset to the neighborhood when it was around. Fresh Market would probably benefit from getting another food truck night going.

I have my doubts it hurts restaurants, but so what if it does? Is it the city's duty to block competition? Maybe it will help incentivize some of those overpriced mediocre restaurants to improve. (Bistro Vida - 3* on yelp).

Like this comment
Posted by Yeccccchhh
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 3, 2014 at 3:07 pm

I have gotten food poisoning a couple of times from food trucks. They need to be held to higher health and safety standards than they are now. I am sure there are good reasons why people call them "roach coaches".

Like this comment
Posted by Rupert of henzau
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 3, 2014 at 4:54 pm

They are only referred to as roach coaches by you, yech. Plenty of people eat at them with no problems. They are held to Hugh standards as far as health and safety are. You make the same comment ivor and ver again on these threads-- why don't you tell us exactly which food trucks made you sick [portion removed.]

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Posted by Foodie
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jan 5, 2014 at 10:53 am

I think the food trucks are a fun event, but they need to be off the grid like it's name. The issue here is the traffic and parking impact it will cause during Spring and Summer time. Imagine several thousand people attending this event on a hot Summer day. Where do the patrons park? Downtown and Caltrain. The current restaurants will be devastated from the parking impact, where their regular customers wont find parking. Some people say oh it's only once a week, it won't harm the restaurants. Well, what if your boss came to you and said by the way, we are going to bring someone else on Wednesdays and replace you without pay for one day, how would you feel. Is the Caltrain station for Off The Grid ADA COMPLIANCE, has a EIR report been done, and has a financial impact report been done?

Like this comment
Posted by Foodie
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jan 5, 2014 at 10:58 am

Currently the health department inspects restaurants on a surprise visit. Food trucks have to make an appointment with the health department to get inspected. Food trucks have different standards then restaurants. I would love to see surprise inspections for food trucks also.

Like this comment
Posted by Mr.Recycle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 5, 2014 at 2:59 pm

@Foodie - there is no particular shortage of parking on Wednesday nights downtown Menlo park. And if there is a huge infusion of people coming, it will certainly help many of the other businesses, if not the restaurants

Like this comment
Posted by Chichi
a resident of Mayfield
on Jan 5, 2014 at 7:30 pm

I have personally gotten sick from the Oaxacan kitchen food truck! nd also one that used to be on Mtn View near the Pueblo market. Another one on the Stanford Campus near the Red barn and tennis courts made my friend and I sick. Have never tried ones on Meno or anywhere else in the last four years--reluctant to do so. Food poisoning can keep you tied to the bathroom on agony for 3-4 dys!

Like this comment
Posted by Mike
a resident of University South
on Jan 5, 2014 at 8:03 pm

Will the Bacon-Bacon truck be there?

Like this comment
Posted by Chichi
a resident of Mayfield
on Jan 5, 2014 at 8:11 pm

I used to go to Oaxacan Kitchen when it was a restaurant, so I trusted them. Obviously, food trucks are held to a different standard! I felt so betrayed ......maybe they should call Gordon Ramsay.

Like this comment
Posted by Gourmet Ghetto - Yes !
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jan 5, 2014 at 8:22 pm

I would just love this! I hope it is agreeable thru the hearing process. I have been to the one at Fort Mason. Ever since Andales left Palo Alto finding a regular "go to" place that is easy on the wellet and great on the palette as well as healthy / clean cuisine has not be easy - aka Gourmet Ghetto would be a variety of menues and a vibrant addition to our town !. I agree with the statement could encourage "overpriced mediocre restaurants to improve".
A few at the California Avenue Farmers Market are true jewels. Some are a bit pricy.

Like this comment
Posted by Chichi
a resident of Mayfield
on Jan 5, 2014 at 8:35 pm

'Twas at the Farmers Mkt that I was sickened by Oaxacan Kitchen! A lot of the. Farmer's market has gotten pricey....maybe because it is winter, but I should not be paying Mollie Stone's prices for winter crops, such as pears, apples, persimmons, pomegranates, oranges, and kale.

However, the food trucks they used to have near the Congregationalist Church on Embarcadero were exceptional. The Church had no problem with them in their parking lot-- what happened? Was it the taxes they did not pay?

Like this comment
Posted by Outside Observer
a resident of another community
on Jan 5, 2014 at 8:45 pm

You are what you eat ;)

Like this comment
Posted by Chichi
a resident of Mayfield
on Jan 6, 2014 at 12:37 pm

@Rupert: Things must be really perfect in Henzau if you have never suffered from food poisoning at a restaurant or food truck, don't have asthma or allergies or whatever the heck AD is.

Like this comment
Posted by Rupert of henzau
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 6, 2014 at 3:04 pm

Chichi-- yes things are great in Henzau and they are pretty good at the food trucks in PA and MP-- the vast majority of people eat and stay healthy. BTW, the asthma comment was not directed at you, unless you are getting your identities mixed up

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