Elizabeth Miranda’s food dream centers on churros, and her goal someday is to have a brick-and-mortar bakery where she can sell them along with her “reimagined” versions of other traditional Mexican pastries. For now, she settles for a stall at one of San Francisco’s outdoor markets.
Matt Cohen’s food dream is the Cubert Cold Prep, a portable, collapsible food preparation stall, 8 feet square, that is delivered to the site, then cleaned and picked up for storage at the end of the day. This liberates people like Miranda from having to haul around the usual market inventory: a wobbly card table, a fabric canopy, coolers full of ice, food cooked at an off-site kitchen, cleaning products and storage racks, all of which require hours of setup and shutdown.
The Cubert, more than three years in the making, is Cohen’s attempt to make the risky business of feeding people less so by reducing the price of admission from the “typically prohibitive” levels he sees for restaurant rents and food truck costs.
It will debut officially at the Fort Mason food market in March and will rent for a daily fee (yet to be determined) to Bay Area vendors who participate in food markets run by Cohen’s company, Off the Grid. Other vendors will pay a flat daily fee of $500.
The base purchase price of the Cold Prep is $65,000 each for a minimum order of three — about the price of a new food truck, but with three locations (instead of just one) and none of the maintenance required by a kitchen on wheels. Vendors outside the Bay Area will be able only to buy, not rent, unless there’s enough demand for Cohen to create an additional transportation hub. He has 20 Cuberts ready to go and plans to build the rest to order, with a six-week lead time; he hopes to have so many orders that six weeks quickly becomes a struggle.
Cohen envisions a national network of Cuberts in office lobbies and public plazas, or open spaces in retail malls — any place a vendor might encounter hungry people. So far he has one committed client, Stumptown Coffee Roasters, which in partnership with Google has ordered a customized Cubert with the power to run a La Marzocco espresso machine. Stumptown will start providing coffee service at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, early in the new year.
But like Miranda, Cohen had to attract attention first, which is how she ended up using a prototype for her startup, Postrique, at his company’s Fort Mason food market in San Francisco on Oct. 20. Cohen, who founded Off the Grid in 2010 to revitalize the city’s mobile food scene and stage private and corporate events, will use Fort Mason as a Cubert showroom: Fifteen vendors who previously used tented stalls will get to rent a Cubert instead.
For the fall test drive, an Off the Grid employee drove the Cubert to Fort Mason on a flatbed truck, unfolded it, extended the flap that shields customers from inclement weather and made sure that the self-contained sinks and refrigeration unit were working. Miranda, a 26-year-old baker, arrived later that morning with her ingredients and a deep fryer that she connected to the unit’s generator.
When she was done for the day, she went home. The Off the Grid driver cleaned, folded and loaded the cube back onto the truck, and drove it to a storage space.