EL CERRITO -- The food truck phenomenon known as Off the Grid made its Contra Costa County debut here Wednesday, and the community welcomed it with open arms, open wallets and empty stomachs.
This was a "soft opening" -- the official opening will be July 17 -- but people by the hundreds turned out to dine from the 10 food trucks lining the closed block of Fairmount Avenue, choosing from selections such as fish tacos, garlic noodles, pulled pork, barbecue ribs and high-end cupcakes. News of the opening was spread largely via word-of-mouth and social media.
In fact, organizers said, some people were waiting 30 minutes before the "pop-up market" was open for business, and parking was at a premium for much of the night.
El Cerrito resident Tracy Giles had been to the now-closed Off the Grid event in North Berkeley, which she said was "too crowded" and difficult for outsiders to attend. She had heard about the new event in El Cerrito when friends in Berkeley emailed her.
"I just parked at BART and walked down," she said. "That's the nice thing about El Cerrito -- everything's in walking distance."
Giles said she liked the variety of offerings at the market and added that it "would probably help business around here" as people notice other offerings nearby.
That is indeed what city leaders are hoping, even as some businesses -- particularly restaurants -- have raised concerns about it drawing away patrons. The foot traffic on the first evening was unprecedented in recent memory and something the city has sought for years.
"I personally like it," said former Councilman Bill Jones. "We see them in other communities and think 'El Cerrito should have this.'"
He sees the food trucks as "kind of an extension of the farmers market" that operates two days a week at the nearby Plaza shopping center and draws from a wide area.
The turnout next week should be equal to or better than the first night.
"Next week is the hard launch, so we'll do a big marketing push," said Ben Himlan, director of business development for Off the Grid, which was started three years ago by founder Matt Cohen and now operates regularly at 22 locations, in addition to one-shot special events.
The market will operate from 5 to 9 p.m. each Wednesday on the block of Fairmount between San Pablo Avenue and Carlson Boulevard, next to Pastime Hardware. The selections of food trucks will rotate every other week to maintain a variety of offerings.
It was Off the Grid that approached the city about holding a regular market, and negotiations had been going on since October.
"We were looking at El Cerrito already, not because we closed North Berkeley, but because we wanted to be here," Himlan said. "The owner wanted to be here."
Permits, public safety issues and other regulatory processes and logistics, as well as deciding a suitable location, took time, he said.
"There was a lot of negotiation," Himlan said. "It's business. It's politics."
The Fairmount block was chosen for its proximity to public transit and other shopping. The location is on AC Transit lines, and El Cerrito Plaza BART is three blocks away.
It also doesn't hurt that Albany, Berkeley, Kensington and Richmond are not far away.
"We see a synergy with BART. We see a synergy with the shopping center," Himlan said. "We were keen to choose a space that works for us, for vendors and for the community."
He acknowledged that people dining at the streetside event are unlikely to eat at a local restaurant that day but said the attraction would bring exposure to other businesses.
Himlan noted that a two-screen cinema, a record store, the shopping center, a brew pub and a comic book store are all attractions within a block of the event site. The idea is to create a sense of community, with the block being "an active space" where "people come out, bump into each other and see people they wouldn't otherwise see."
"Well, it did the job -- it got a lot of people out here," said El Cerrito resident and business owner John Stashik. "We'll have to see if people get off their butts and walk up the street to some of these other places."
Weekly food truck market is 5 to 9 p.m. Wednesdays on the block of Fairmount Avenue between San Pablo Avenue and Carlson Boulevard. Parking will be available in the lot at Mechanics Bank across San Pablo when the branch is closed for the day. The site is also accessible by AC Transit and BART (Plaza station).