Interview: Matt Cohen & Sinead Kennedy, Off The Grid (Part 2)

Posted in Interviews, Trends on January 27, 2017

Off The Grid began in 2010 as a modern reimagining of traditional Japanese markets, where communities came together around food. Now, after seven years of growth, Off The Grid has markets of all sizes and scope around the Bay Area and in Sacramento. In addition to joining communities together, Off The Grid has cemented a reputation for creating opportunities for aspiring food entrepreneurs. In part two of our series on Off The Grid’s impact and growth, we talk to Off The Grid founder Matt Cohen and Sinead Kennedy, Off The Grid’s Director of Marketing, about two new initiatives from the Off The Grid team designed for food entrepreneurs: Instrucktional and The Whole Cart(Check out Part 1 of our series on Off The Grid here.)

As Off the Grid has grown, what has inspired you to take Off the Grid’s support of the industry steps further with The Whole Cart and Instrucktional? The Whole Cart started because a large technology company was interested in building a custom mobile food program to provide a solution that could help meet their growing staff and operational needs – they wanted a robust, scalable, delicious food operation with the flexibility to quickly respond to the changing demands of one of the world’s most dynamic companies. Building on Off the Grid’s many years of mobile food service experience, The Whole Cart was built in 18 months and now maintains and operates the largest mobile food truck operation in the United States feeding thousands employees daily.
Instrucktional was born from a combined need of wanting to bring a sense of entrepreneurial ownership to a corporate dining environment while, at the same time, seeking to address a skills gap that was frequently observed in Off the Grid vendor applicants – incredibly authentic and enthusiast food entrepreneurs who often lacked the necessary restaurant and business skills to achieve success in a competitive marketplace. Instrucktional was created to empower entrepreneurs in the mobile food space and to provide them with the skills they need to succeed in their own ventures.
What kind of food entrepreneurs do you recommend for each program? Off the Grid: Entrepreneurs that already have a concept that is simple, relevant and easily understandable. The business name, menu options, and visual theme are unified, clear and (can be) profitable and you have an existing background that gives you confidence to be able to serve to large volumes of customers. More than food truck owners are welcome – with a strong concept and menu, you are eligible to be a part of our tented vendor program at our largest markets.

Instrucktional is intended for entrepreneurs who are passionate about food and are serious about professionally entering the food business. We chose participants based on their concept ideas, potential for growth, and ambitions as an entrepreneur. The paid, 2-year Instrucktional program comes with lots of fringe benefits including health insurance, regular business hours, management training, menu development, food cost training, and a brand identity that is yours when you graduate the program.
How does each program help a new food business find its feet and grow? What are steps you recommend vendors take after one (or more) of these three programs? Off the Grid understands that you won’t have it all figured out. We’re here to help guide you through the process with an entire Vendor Success Team. We give advice, secure permits, set up logistics and production, and market the events for you with a mix of PR, digital, and traditional marketing. As vendors start to see that their concept is working, we’re there to support businesses as they scale into multiple vehicles or a brick and mortar restaurant.
Instrucktional is a true mentorship program where you learn the tools needed to be successful serving to the public. It’s a comprehensive training course in how to run (and succeed) in the food business. Under the guidance of industry experts from the mobile food industry, restaurant industry, and design industry, participants are guided through the creation of every element of their new business. A participant can enter the program with little experience in restaurants or hospitality and walk away from the program with all of these skills.
Instrucktional’s comprehensive program includes a curriculum that addresses every step in the process of starting a food business, including taking inventory, ordering, kitchen skills, financial planning, business strategy, branding and design, marketing strategy, personnel management, and overall business operations. Each participant is provided with creative and marketing support to assist in developing a brand identity and graphic design for each food truck concept. During the second half of the program, participants expand on their learnings and integrate their brands into The Whole Cart’s mobile catering fleet to bring their concept to life.
What are the biggest challenges facing upstart food businesses today? What are the benefits of getting into this industry now? This is booming time for the food truck industry where revenues for the industry as a whole have quadrupled nationally. For entrepreneurs with the discipline to build a strong brand, maintain healthy margins, and market themselves for both public sale and catering, food trucks can be a route to tremendous success whether as a first step to a restaurant business or as a standalone small business.
Your concept will play an enormous role in your success – you need to make sure it’s the right one, that there’s a market for your product, and that its distinctive from other products that are available. Whether you’re selling tacos or cupcakes – the menu, back story, branding and concept must be clear and easy to understand while directly relating to a profitable food item.
One of the biggest challenges currently is that a lot of running a successful food truck is a clear, easily understandable, and a menu that is relatively stable. Seasonal menus can often be a detriment to a food truck’s long term success.
Service volume is also a big challenge – for a profitable service you need to be serving on average 1.5 customers per minute (about 100/hour). Any slower and your line won’t move and you’ll lose paying customers during a relatively short service window. Setting up your product, line and service to maximize output will increase profitability significantly.