Every January for the past decade, Off the Grid kicks off the New Year with what we like to call our “discovery period.”
It’s typically one of the most exciting times at Off the Grid for our staff and our community partners. It’s the time when we put out a call for the latest, most delicious new Creators to serve at our largest events throughout the spring and summer and plot experiences that spark joy, excitement, and fun in the community.
This exact time last year we were working our way through tasting (and arguing about) dozens of different food businesses who were narrowed down from more than a hundred applicants for our largest markets. We worked with local artists around collaborations and pop-ups, and securing entertainment like Lion Dancers, 2nd Lines, Marching Bands and Mariachis. We were ready to go, and then—seemingly overnight—the world plummeted into a pandemic. In an instant, the entire plan for 2020 was out the window, and our big ideas flew out with it.
We had to shut down our major public markets, figure out where we fit in, and more importantly how we could continue to provide value to our community.
Amazingly, the entire city seemed to become Off the Grid—with restaurants building parklets and outdoor dining becoming a viable solution for all sorts of food businesses. But when the entire world tries to solve the same problems you’ve been working with for over a decade, where does (or should) Off the Grid fit into that?
While we didn’t come out of last year completely unscathed, we did emerge differently.
Our initial focus on filling the gap with service opportunities between Creators and our community has expanded to include community relief efforts that seek to address gaps in a system ripe for change.
What we initially thought was temporary problem solving has now evolved into a full-blown pivot of our business. And, while we’re still exploring, learning, and figuring out what that means, we’ve discovered that our version of building community through local food still fits into this new landscape in unique and powerful ways.
So, what’s the path ahead? The only thing we don’t know about the future is that we don’t know.
We have some ideas (spoiler alert: no large gatherings for most of 2021), but we want to work with our community to work together to figure it out. The biggest questions we’re out to answer is: What are the most interesting and creative things happening in our community? How have food businesses of all kinds adapted to the new environment? What changes are eaters, business owners, and community stakeholders most excited about? And what are they trying to figure out for themselves?
It’ll be a new process of discovery, and one that we’re excited to learn from.
So, what do we anticipate this year will look like for us?
While we’re hoping this year will be the start of a return to normal, we recognize that nothing will come back exactly the same.
What that means for us is that we’re unable to host our large, public mobile food markets. Small food spots will continue to operate and grow throughout the Bay Area, providing pandemic-safe options for takeout with things like online ordering.
We’ve opened up food spots in Serramonte and Alameda, as well as San Francisco Airport and other areas in need of frontline workers. We’re also currently working on rolling out a new feature in our Off the Grid Experience App that will allow eaters to find their favorite food trucks and vendors across the Bay Area, see their hours, menus and order ahead for pickup. As the year unfolds, we’ll continue to evolve our markets and food experiences to fit the current climate.
Perhaps our biggest shift has been jumping into the world of emergency response and food relief. This is an area where we found an opportunity to support our creators and help out the community. Through a number of initiatives, we successfully connected our community through food with hundreds of thousands of meals served to those affected by fires and pandemic, and $7.5 million in revenue driven to food vendors.
We will continue to focus our efforts in this area and are actively seeking new opportunities to connect food businesses with individuals and communities in need of food assistance. With this new model, we’re preparing to expand our model nationally by working with city and state agencies in need of support and open to talking with new partners to explore a variety of opportunities.
The last major shift is within our catering department. Catering, for obvious safety reasons, has fundamentally changed. What a lot of people don’t know about Off the Grid is that the vast majority of our catering business depended on large events. Those events have now shifted online with the reduction in business travel and hospitality.
While we anticipate that some of these large events will come back in the future, for now, we’re working on connecting our creators to smaller events and opportunities that are well suited to the mobile community—including weddings, birthday parties, and small gatherings. These all need to remain safe while at the same time allow people to connect in person over food.
It’s all an exploration for us, and it’s all exhilarating.
No matter what, we plan to stay true to our roots.
For us, that means focusing on our community by listening and adapting. We’re looking forward to continuing this as we go forward and building on our mission of empowering local (food) communities to thrive.
In the markets space, we want to figure out how we best work within our community to reflect what’s happening now. We want to discover new Creators, hear their stories, tell their stories and share how they’re adapting to reach their loyal fans, while also engaging new ones.
For our emergency response efforts—newly dubbed Community Cares—we’re striving to understand how we can build a human element of connection to what has traditionally been a very transactional space. How can we use the tools that we have to create a sense of connection, meaning, and joy for the people experiencing those traumas that go beyond the act of getting fed a meal?
We’ve come to expect the unexpected, and we’re grateful for the fresh start. It’s a new year with new opportunities to build on something better, stronger together. We hope you join us for the ride.