Matt Cohen of ‘Off the Grid’: “Impact”

Prior to COVID, the typical way we provided to our community was through our large markets with our mobile food Creators. After looking at the initial COVID landscape last year, we couldn’t do this anymore so there was a community of small businesses that had no real pathway toward financial stability and they had lost […]

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Prior to COVID, the typical way we provided to our community was through our large markets with our mobile food Creators. After looking at the initial COVID landscape last year, we couldn’t do this anymore so there was a community of small businesses that had no real pathway toward financial stability and they had lost a connection to their community that they previously had. We decided to expand in how we provide connections into a space of community relief by helping people and businesses establish a connection to their community in a different sort of way.

As part of my series about people who stepped up to make a difference during the COVID19 Pandemic, I had the pleasure of interviewing Matt Cohen.

Matt Cohen, Founder and CEO of Off the Grid, is a serial food entrepreneur. After teaching in Japan and frequenting the country’s infamous street vendors, Matt turned his experience into a dream to create epic food feasts in the Bay Area. He founded Off the Grid in 2010 after running point on a number of other culinary projects in San Francisco, including Marketing Committee Head for the San Francisco Street Food Festival, and partnering up on companies such as the San Francisco Food Lab and Calcultd Inc. By successfully launching Off the Grid ten years ago and creating a beloved Bay Area staple experience, Matt has become an innovative problem solver and job creator that’s making a difference in his community. He has been named San Francisco Business Journal’s 40 Under 40 and National Small Business Association’s Small Business Person of the Year in the state of California. Matt graduated from Emory University in 2000 and received his masters from Emory in 2001. He currently resides in San Francisco and still travels to Japan when he isn’t leading the Bay Area’s favorite food feasts.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how and where you grew up?

I grew up in Southern California, but I moved to Colorado when I was in middle school and have always really appreciated Colorado for the unique outdoor experience of living there. It really resonated with me in my childhood.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

People who know and work around me, know I am heavily influenced by the Myths of Sisyphus and the idea of existentialism and how you find meaning in the process of doing something that is difficult.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

I lived in Japan for a number of years. There is a special place in Kyoto that was a Kabuki stage and it was the highest honor to perform there. There is a saying, “Kiyomizu no Butai kara Tobi-oriru,” which essentially translates to “do it like you’re going to fly off the stage at Kiyomizu.” It’s about working so hard and taking a leap of faith to see it through and try to be successful.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. You are currently leading a social impact organization that has stepped up during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to address?

The focus on supporting our community has always been there for Off the Grid. For me, it was in 2017 with the Sonoma Fires when I was able to see how our organization could uniquely support community response. This allowed us to explore how we can be involved in the emergency response space and how we could be ready for something like COVID and how we can play a role in COVID emergency relief.

Back in March of 2020, Off the Grid responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by partnering with the city of San Francisco to support the Great Plates program to feed at-risk seniors affected by COVID-19, delivering more than 500,000 meals to 2,800 clients and teamed up with the city of Oakland to support Great Plates there as well. We then teamed up with the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management to feed food-insecure individuals and low income families who had been affected by COVID-19 and worked with the Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospitality foundation to feed frontline workers. We also started a funding campaign that matched the first $5,000 to feed grocery store employees, raising $15,775 (including their $5k match), which allowed our mobile food Creators to serve 1,600 meals to grocery store employees. Most recently, we spearheaded the San Jose COVID Food Relief Program, which is providing groceries and prepared meals to more than 4,000 individuals who have been impacted by the pandemic. The program has proven to be wildly successful because it’s so inclusive, with a nearly 70% acceptance rate. We’re hoping to bring similar programs to other cities around the country.

In your opinion, what does it mean to be a hero?

There are so many different definitions, but I think that someone who stands with authenticity and integrity in alignment with their values is an incredibly heroic person.

In your opinion or experience, what are “5 characteristics of a hero?” Please share a story or example for each.

Authenticity — You can look at iconic figures like Obama, Dali Lama who just embody authenticity through their actions and communication.

Integrity — My step father has the most integrity than anyone I know. I hold him as a standard when I think of someone with integrity. The writer Jonathan Gold also comes to mind around the idea of how you honor integrity.

Grit — I’m pretty inspired by farmers. They work in a profession where the weather can make or break them, and even when successful, the margins aren’t remarkable. But their daily persistence at caring and nurturing for something to be utilized by others is pretty heroic.

Vision — Ben Thompson is someone who connected the dots for me around connecting vision to strategy. Daniel Ek’s and Reed Hastings’ approaches to strategy are pretty remarkable as well.

Impact — For me to classify something as heroic, somehow a mark has been left on the world. For example, Elon Musk’s vision around access to space; Bill Gates and his global vaccination program; and Jose Andres and his impact on meeting the needs around global emergency response.

If heroism is rooted in doing something difficult, scary, or even self-sacrificing, what do you think drives some people — ordinary people — to become heroes?

I think there is a bit of a similarity to being an entrepreneur to the people who I view as heroes, which is they are kind of compelled to do it. They don’t have any other choice but to do it and see through the action that they’re taking. Anything that is truly heroic is difficult and at a certain point, you exhaust typical emotions that make you feel good and you move into something deeper.

What was the specific catalyst for you or your organization to take heroic action? At what point did you personally decide that heroic action needed to be taken?

Prior to COVID, the typical way we provided to our community was through our large markets with our mobile food Creators. After looking at the initial COVID landscape last year, we couldn’t do this anymore so there was a community of small businesses that had no real pathway toward financial stability and they had lost a connection to their community that they previously had. We decided to expand in how we provide connections into a space of community relief by helping people and businesses establish a connection to their community in a different sort of way.

Who are your heroes, or who do you see as heroes today?

I’m a big basketball fan. I love Steph Curry because of the type of basketball player he is but also his commitment to supporting local food communities — he’s donated millions of dollars to supporting local Oakland restaurants during COVID.

Also, as I mentioned, I’m really impressed with what Jose Andres has done in terms of the audaciousness of his vision and how he can impact emergency food response globally.

Let’s talk a bit about what is happening in the world today. What specifically frightened or frightens you most about the pandemic?

The thing that frightens me the most has been consistent through the pandemic, which is uncertainty — the uncertainty around the pandemic ending or stabilizing. The constant moving target has made it impossible to plan what next steps are for us as an organization and has created an unstable environment for everyone who works with us, which I can imagine has produced a lot of trauma.

Despite that, what gives you hope for the future? Can you explain?

Every day, I am impressed by the food community’s resourcefulness and how it is adapting and thinking about what’s next. Because the economics of the food space are so upside down, there is a window within this time to think about equity and social impact that the previous economic structure was struggling to accommodate. It’s that combination of inventiveness and social dialogue that I’m interested to see what comes of next.

What has inspired you the most about the behavior of people during the pandemic, and what behaviors do you find most disappointing?

I fancy myself a logical thinker. For me, the most straightforward thing in the world in terms of one simple thing that you can do to care for others around you is to wear masks. I have been so shocked with people’s resistance to that idea and it’s really a shame because it speaks to a small act that you can do to protect others. I think it is a small ask for a big impact.

Has this crisis caused you to reassess your view of the world or of society? We would love to hear what you mean.

I think this crisis has caused me to reevaluate the impact of the role of the government. As a small business owner and entrepreneur, I find the government to be well intentioned, but always something that I have to work around, especially in an emergent food space. What I’ve observed is that both effective government can be so transformative, but also that the government right now is playing the important role of the last resort that is so meaningful to so many businesses and business owners by extension to their employees. This has been eye opening to me.

What permanent societal changes would you like to see come out of this crisis?

One of the things that has been really eye opening for us, especially in the emergency response space, is that the industrial food ecosystem and commodity food ecosystem has kind of merged with emergency response. Often in emergencies, the priority is just in providing people calories, but not necessarily about caring about their nutrition or what is being given to the recipients. We’ve prioritized working with local farms who can support local restaurants who can support local residents in need, and the impact of emergencies can be relieved rather quickly simply by supporting local communities. I hope there is a dialogue for more exploration of this kind of approach as opposed to just getting calories in people’s stomachs and ignoring the sourcing of products just because they are the least expensive.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

I think that young people in particular have the headspace and the lack of previous failures necessary to try to do audacious things. Young people are uniquely positioned to take large swings at the bat and fail, but do it in a way that they can learn from and build on. If you can think about a continuum, there are low stakes and low risk when people are young and trying to have large impacts, so that is the time to try and start.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would encourage everyone to learn about where their food comes from, understand how to grow their own food and also how to cook basic meals so that they can appreciate the difference between manipulated mass market types of products versus ways they can support local communities and support their own nutrition.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

There are two people:

Ben Thompson, who is a technology and aggregation theory strategist. As food is increasingly intertwined with technology platforms, I’ve found his writing to be incredibly meaningful for understanding technology’s ongoing disruption of the food landscape.

Separately, I’m extremely passionate about community building broadly and I’d love to speak to the Obamas about their views on local community organizing, and how local communities can and should represent their needs for the future.

How can our readers follow you online?

Instagram: @offthegridsf

Facebook: @OffTheGridSF

Twitter: @otgsf

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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