For a solid decade, food trucks dominated outdoor events in the Bay Area. They landed at Off the Grid nights to form temporary pods in parking lots. Food trucks not only provided diners with a sense of novelty, they also arrived with built-in tasting menus for people willing to experiment with their taste buds. Alongside pop-ups, social media and ghost kitchens, food trucks offered ambitious chefs a way to establish a brand, a following and a path toward a more permanent kitchen.
The pandemic didn’t put a halt to every food truck’s trajectory towards brick and mortar, but it did knock the air out of a few tires. Hammerling Wines First Friday Block Parties have reinvigorated an alternative approach to mobile dining. Once a month, come rain or shine or winter’s chill—and by Josh Hammerling’s arrangement—a dozen or more food stands set up their wares across the campus his business shares with Donkey and Goat Winery, Broc Cellars and Vinca Minor Wine.
The stands are familiar in shape and size to anyone who frequents farmers’ markets. As such, there’s a heightened sense of immediacy and intimacy between the chef and the diner. Without the walls of a steel truck standing between them, the interaction feels friendlier—lemonade stands repurposed for an adult palate. After placing their orders, customers huddle nearby to watch the cooks assemble the dishes.
While chef Sanae Shikayama concentrates on the grill, her chubby dog, a pitbull mix, stands under her feet waiting for scraps at Daruma Kiosk. Chef Michael de la Torre greets people in his Xulo line with an air of unfeigned enthusiasm, serving tacos in homemade flour tortillas that are so good they made me consider giving up corn tortillas altogether. Pastry chef Elle Cowan is in constant motion prepping fresh rounds of treats at her SoDo Donuts stand, where the passionfruit curd is sharp and tangy.
The vendors Hammerling admits to this monthly event have already garnered wide acclaim in the local food press. Diners in attendance are spoiled for choice with regular participants including Jules Pizza, Fish and Bonez, Provecho and Rucolina.
“We’re aware of the quality and that’s why I think the event has started to draw a reputation of being curated,” Hammerling said. “We want people who are sourcing responsibly from local farms. It’s the same thing we do with grape growing.”
Hammerling and his team do taste the food first. “Sometimes people reach out to me, and if it’s a friend of a friend we’ll let them come out on an off day,” he said.
During the course of a Friday evening the crowd continued to grow, but there was an unspoken and overriding code of civility. Waves of attendees undulated peacefully across the connected courtyards in search of snacks and varietals to taste. Nobody waiting in line appeared to express impatience. Parents brought their tiny kids and larger dogs with them.
“We’ve certainly had chefs who show up who don’t really understand what they’re getting into, and they’re just instantly in the weeds,” Hammerling said. “So it’s good to give people a head start on the operations and how the whole event plays out.”
At similar festivals and food events, vendor fees can be high. The vendor fee at Hammerling essentially pays for the DJ and some extras. “It was important for us to keep the barrier to entry as low as possible,” Hammerling said. “We’re not bringing producers in to make a profit off of them.”
The First Friday events began in the winter of 2021. “We did four or five in the month of December,” Hammerling said. “From there, we started doing it once a month to keep it special, and it’s been growing steadily since. It’s kind of the anchor now monthly for us.”
He added, “Two years ago when we were coming out of the second COVID lockdown, it was just the most necessary thing because people felt uncomfortable being inside. We feel great that it’s been a success because the point was always to create a fun event and a community gathering space, to share good wine and food and all the stuff we were missing.”
Hammerling Wines First Friday Block Parties happen in front of the winery every month, 3-8pm, 1350 5th St., Berkeley. 341.766.5680. hammerlingwines.co.