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The Bay Area Is Hungry

Did our downtown merchants miss the boat (or truck) by not bringing Moveable Feast to their neighborhood?

Here's what I saw on July 1 at the : Thousands of people from Palo Alto, Brisbane, the East Bay and most cities in between, gathering for a gourmet street food and music event.

Let me rephrase that. Thousands of new faces visited San Mateo without even a glimpse of the many businesses housed here. Twitter and Facebook were buzzing with comments. Newspapers, PBS, and my own San Mateo Patch all .

So how did we fail to see what a boost to the downtown area a large street food event could be?

I know, I know. will be held downtown in the coming week. If it has only a fraction of the draw of the Event Center's street food festival, it will have to grow, and fast. The Caltrain station setting may be a start, but I think not a finish. Also, if it operates independently of our merchants and eateries, how will it benefit the community?

If only we had a large park setting with public transportation nearby. Someplace with multiple parking structures where event attendees would have to stroll past our many merchants to arrive at the festival. Someplace with an organization in place to coordinate our local eateries and multicultural entertainment into the mix. 

Hold the phone! You say we have all that? Yes, and the surrounding area is perfect! Then why, I ask myself, isn't this being used to boost our local economy? Has the Downtown San Mateo Association put all its eggs in one basket focusing on the possible Property Business Improvement District (or PBID) to the apparent exclusion of all else? I digress, that is .

OK, so I sound like a Negative Nellie. Let me jump off my a moment and share my evening at Moveable Feast.

I drove over to the Event Center at 7:15 and queued up to happily pay my $10 to park. The 25 minutes in line for parking might seem like a bad thing to some. However, it just increased my excitement at going to an event so popular. No one seemed to be leaving!

I'm not shy, so as I walked in, I chatted it up with all the others hoofing it from the parking lot. By a 5-to-1 ratio, they were there from someplace other than San Mateo! It's not a scientific study, but it is a sample.

Upon entering, my jaw dropped. There were people everywhere! Lines, and I mean a lot of lines. Not one of the 25 trucks had a line of fewer than 20 people. I asked how long the people in the front had been waiting. Most had waited between an hour to two hours!

Call me a food snob, but only the French Laundry would inspire me to stand and wait that long. Lucky for me, I attended with a handy husband to stand in line while I scoped out seating and spoke to a couple of chefs.

From the Whisk Truck I feasted on a dinner that was unexpectedly fabulous. I ordered their Angus Burger with a roasted pepper-onion blend, sweet roma tomatoes with baby greens, and cheese along with a roasted red pepper stuffed concoction on the side. The Panna Cotta was also delicious.

OK, that meant we had to try another truck, so onto Yumsilog for a fried rice and egg dish that was also to die for.

The muddy lawns didn't deter anyone from from sitting down and tucking in to their food while upbeat music lent an air of festivity.

Judging from Twitter and Facebook comments, one's experience depended on one's time of arrival and how savvy one was in street food gatherings. For example, not bringing your own portable chairs marked you as a newbie.

Some trucks ran out of food. The band announced that 5,000 had been expected and they were guessing that 10,000 were actually there. The vibe was a bit frenzied rather than relaxed due to the unexpectedly large crowd.

To me, none of that is a negative. It screams that the Bay Area is hungry for a new-style multicultural event. The Street Food Revolution is no longer a trend when mainstream media such as Sunset Magazine cover it.

I'm not going out on a limb saying it is here to stay. So come on San Mateo! Let's hop on that bandwagon (or truck) and give the people what they want while helping our local economy.

Anne Sammut July 11, 2011 at 04:08 PM
When is the next feast and how can we keep it to ourselves. :). Move it to downtown and who would pay for the porta potties? I am sure the restaurants wouldn't be to happy.
Bill Moore July 11, 2011 at 04:23 PM
Great assessment. I wasn't there but I spoke with friends who were. It's definitely a balancing act, finding locations that work for diners, truckers, brick-and-mortars, and City Hall. The first San Jose Eats food truck gathering was similarly mobbed, but people who were turned away by long lines flooded the nearby downtown restaurants so everyone did well. As Moveable Feast becomes a repeating event, supply and demand equalize. Central Park would be interesting to try, but I imagine prime real estate like that involves some serious additional overhead.
Robert Edwards July 11, 2011 at 04:24 PM
Hi Denise, Rob Edwards here, executive director of the DSMA. So glad you had a good time on July 1. I heard is was CROWDED! Despite what the Daily Journal and City Council member David Lim have said in weeks past about me and the DSMA, the DSMA is actually still operating as a downtown merchant org as we have for fifty years; we have five committees that meet regularly and 40 adult volunteers that give of their time and talent each month--bankers, accountants, architects, teachers, retailers, you name it, it's a very diverse group. AND we are ALSO pursuing PBID funding--property owners have an opportunity now to create their own assessment district to fund the type of revitalization activities THEY want to see (and not rely completely on city staff or govt funding). And thank god for that; our governor just cut a $10+ million lifeline for San Mateo called Redevelopment Agency funding (RDA). The paltry $3.5 million I am raising within the private sector right now ... continued ...
Robert Edwards July 11, 2011 at 04:25 PM
... now will have to last us five years, but at least it will help relieve some of the pain. But, I digress, we are talking mobile tapas now ... and actually DSMA was the initiator of that too. Off The Grid expanding to the Peninsula was an initiative of DSMA's that started last year as were searching for a "foodie" event that didn't rely on alcohol sales to make money. I heard via Facebook back in October that OTG was looking for a suitable location outside SF. I've been to the Ft Mason one on Friday nights many times and it is such a great time--no one is drunk and stupid, no gangstas intimidating the crowd, nothing but gourmet tapas tasting. I love it. So Jamie Sears Turri (owner of J'me Boutique on 3rd Ave) and I successfully lobbied the manager of Off The Grid, Matt Cohen. We assisted with city permits, helped chose the downtown CalTrain location, and as recently as yesterday, I was tying up loose ends to ensure that the event would be a success. What does a success look like to me? OVERFLOW to our bars, restaurants and retailers! And if 5,000 showed up at the Event Center last week I am certain our downtown bars and restaurants (and retailers who chose to stay open) will see some NEW faces, foot traffic, and a much busier Monday night than normal. Thank you for writing about Off The Grid. See you at the CalTrain station TONIGHT at 5 pm! http://offthegridsf.com/blog
Danine Cozzens July 11, 2011 at 05:19 PM
Denise, you captured the event so well! My hubby and I went over at 8 and trucks were running out of food. Large, happy, mellow crowd. We toured the area, scoped out the crafts show, and wound up at Mimi's. Robert, thanks for posting more about Downtown Association and what they are doing. Yep, it's no longer underground when it's covered in Sunset magazine. I love that young entrepreneurs can get a start with a truck before taking on the financial risks of a brick and mortar restaurant.
Denise Nelson July 11, 2011 at 06:30 PM
Anne, it is held at the Event Center the first Friday of the month through October. Shhhh, tell no one. Keeping our eateries happy would depend on their involvement of an event. If they are there with samples, menu fliers, and have hundreds or even thousands of people passing by their front doors, I'm sure the increase in business would make them happy. Good points!
Denise Nelson July 11, 2011 at 06:32 PM
Thanks for the read and comments Bill. You are right, if it were at least near downtown, the overflow would be a bonus!
Denise Nelson July 11, 2011 at 06:34 PM
Danine, Thanks for the read & comments. Come try the first Off the Grid next Monday, I would love your feedback!
Robert Edwards July 11, 2011 at 06:43 PM
Off The Grid at the CalTrain station is TONIGHT at 5 pm http://offthegridsf.com/blog
Denise Nelson July 11, 2011 at 09:30 PM
Thanks for the scoop! We'll check it out! I was just told by one of the trucks that this is a "soft opening" to work any glitches out but all will be showing up...Looking forward to it.
Denise Nelson July 12, 2011 at 05:26 AM
Missed the Off the Grid, busy getting a walking cast for torn ligament. Boohoo, about the food not the foot. So who went? Please tell me all about it. Facebook only had 36 check-ins and only 6 Tweets compared to last weeks hundreds of updates so hard to tell...
Denise Nelson July 12, 2011 at 05:53 AM
Sorry Rob, I missed what the Daily Journal questioned. My question, and I did ask you directly, was the same. I didn't need Councilman Lim for a lead. I asked you face to face. Again, this is just an opinion column. My opinion is that there are a great group of volunteers on the board and committees. I too have served on both boards and committees for a local merchant's association. It is a challenge to run your business and then volunteer. I am simply suggesting that a large event could greatly benefit the area economically and may be worth the extra work.
Ryan Sebastian July 12, 2011 at 07:29 AM
I'm the organizer for Moveable Feast. We have a great working relationship with the Event Center but would have loved to hold the event in Downtown San Mateo. Before running Treatbot (the karaoke ice cream truck) and Moveable Feast, I worked as an urban planner. Large scale events like Moveable Feast and Off The Grid help to activate neglected public spaces by drawing people not just from San Mateo, but all over the Bay Area. Our next Moveable Feast will be on Friday, August 5th. I'm really excited about the new lineup of trucks -- and this time they will be prepared for the crowds! I'm available at @rsebastian on Twitter if you would like to praise, heckle or give some suggestions for the next MVBL event.
Denise Nelson July 12, 2011 at 01:18 PM
Hi Ryan! Urban planner to karaoke ice cream truck is a very interesting career path! I agree that both Off the Grid & Moveable Feast can provide great exposure for a commercial area when coordinated with the local merchants. San Mateo is fortunate to have both groups in our town & I look forward to great food & fun at both.
Bill Moore July 12, 2011 at 03:48 PM
I got there towards the tail end, around 7:45. There were 6 trucks parked in a single row so all lines were perpendicular. One truck sadly was out of order and couldn't serve. There were about 100 folding chairs arranged in small circles, like banquet seating without tables. A few people sat on the curb. There was an aggressive barrier telling eaters not to enter the Caltrain platform. The area was blocked off to cars and four police officers were on duty. There was the perfect number of people there when I arrived--not crowded, but still lively. Most of them were eating, but some trucks still had a dozen or so people in line. I was told the trucks all had steady business all night. The weather was cloudy and cool, but nobody seemed to mind. I heard that some people were observed hopping off Caltrain and heading straight for the trucks; this could easily become a weekly ritual for some commuters. I spoke with the organizers and they were very happy with the soft launch, and they'll be aiming for a bigger event next week.
Denise Nelson July 13, 2011 at 02:46 AM
Thanks for the update Bill! I'm looking forward to next week's event & hope I see you there...
Jeanavive Marie Janssen July 14, 2011 at 10:24 PM
Yep, next event is August 5th at the San Mateo Event Center...and it is so wonderful that there isn't porta potties!! real bathrooms available for attendees...you know that makes it worth it to pay parking if it ensures that...and there was no lines at the bathrooms that I noted...
Jeanavive Marie Janssen July 14, 2011 at 10:26 PM
25th street merchants felt the compressions of the First Friday events to the local eateries with bars; especially the Entertainment sponsor The Swinging Door, they got slammed as the nearest after-party bar....

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