It started with cupcakes.
The sugary confections appeared on the scene last summer, roving from place to place around the city in a white truck dotted with sprinkles. The city ate it up.
Then there was coffee, calling your name from a red truck parked conveniently en route to class for half the undergraduate population. Then tacos right around the corner. And desserts on Walnut.
All around campus, entrepreneurs are challenging our notions of what to expect from our food trucks. A new class of trucks has arisen — like Buttercream, Hub Bub, Coup de Taco and Sugar Philly (previously called Sugar Cube) — that is serving high-end gourmet food on the go.
The movement is new to Philadelphia, but the city is by no means on the forefront. In places like Los Angeles, New York and even Portland, Ore., professional chefs have been trading their restaurant gigs for road jobs. Now young, well-educated 20-somethings are joining those chefs in their unusual culinary pursuits.
Take Coup de Taco. Two of the three co-owners, childhood friends Peter Berman and Jeff Henretig, were kicking around the idea of opening a late-night restaurant in the city that served healthy food when they decided to start small by opening a truck. It was a low-cost, recession-friendly way of seeing if their idea was a worthwhile one.
They settled on international tacos as their food of choice, got their licenses from the city and sunk about $40,000 into buying and re-outfitting a truck they bought on Craigslist. With Henretig at the stovetop — the self-taught chef began cooking international food during a ninth-grade social studies class — the truck opened for business last October.
The team emphasizes the quality ingredients in addition to healthiness.
“Americans are creatures of convenience, so fast food is always going to be a major part of our society,” Henretig said. “We’re trying to bring the healthiness of a more gourmet restaurant to the masses.”
Beyond changing styles of food, the food truck profession is breaking out of its blue-collar roots. Berman and Henretig both have MBAs — Henretig graduated from Wharton last year.
Franklin Shen, co-owner of the Sugar Philly dessert truck, and Drew Crockett, Hub Bub owner, are both Penn graduates. Shen graduated in 2003 and Crockett in 2005, and both have capitalized on their connections to students to build followings.
It was actually Shen’s time at Penn that sparked his love affair with food trucks. But he and his partners felt there was a void in snack options from food trucks and decided to open a dessert truck with the help of a friend who was trained as a pastry chef.
He sees his truck as not just a way to feed people, but as “a new class of restaurant that’s fine dining without needing a restaurant. It’s an experience that people can reward themselves with, but not feel like they’re throwing their money away.”
Like Buttercream, Sugar Philly is a mobile truck that relies on social networking sites like Twitter to tell customers where they will be each day. Shen explained that this engages customers as a type of game — and is certainly standard operating procedure for these new types of trucks.
Some of these entrepreneurs have abandoned more immediately lucrative options for their businesses.
Crockett opened his truck after working as trader at a New York investment firm.
“Outside of my office was a food truck where the guy had basically figured out how to put an espresso machine in a truck,” he said. “And immediately a light bulb went off in my head: why doesn’t something like this exist at Penn already?”
Crockett waited nearly two years for a vending license and was about start at the Boston University School of Management when he got it.
“Basically what I knew was that if I didn’t take advantage of the opportunity now it was kind of going to pass me by,” he said. He deferred business school for a year to get his truck up and running.
He started selling coffee in October and got what he calls a great reception from students. The truck boasts about 75 to 80 regulars and about 100 total customers each day — similar to Coup de Taco’s 75 to 80 daily customers.
And though they do compete with the establishment, Sean Basinski, a 1994 alumnus and director of advocacy group, the Street Vendor Project, said the newer food trucks can actually attract new customers who did not previously eat at trucks.
A tradition of food trucks
In Philadelphia, the introduction of new food trucks into the market has been fairly smooth and the industry has been spared of some of the turmoil other cities have experienced. In all likelihood, this is a result of Philadelphia’s practice of assigning specific spots to food truck owners.
In New York, where the city’s 5,000 mobile food vendors are free to roam the city as they like, tension arose this past summer between these new types of food trucks when they tried to set up shop on street corners that have long been “claimed” by more-established truck owners.
The situation wasn’t always so orderly in University City. Until 1998, vendors parked up and down Walnut and Spruce streets to sell their food. Then Penn, looking to protect new retail activity in the area, backed a City Council bill to more heavily regulate vendor sites. Trucks were moved off of certain streets and into “food plazas,” places like the truck hotspot next to Pottruck Gymnasium.
But the new truck owners have had cordial relationships with their older peers. Berman said that the owner of Rami’s Middle Eastern truck, who owns the spot next to his truck on 40th street, helped show his team the ropes when they opened.
The owners of Hub Bub, Sugar Philly and Coup de Taco also talk about the rapport they have with each other — comrades in their unique business ventures rather than just competition.
Scott Basinski, 1994 alumnus and director of advocacy group the Street Vendor Project, said the newer types of food trucks can actually help bring more customers into the food truck industry. These “branded” trucks, as he calls them, can attract customers who don’t typically eat from food trucks because of their well-painted and sometimes flashy exteriors.
The food truck future
Though the new wave of trucks around campus has slowed since the fall, Engineering senior Arjun Gopalratnam said they have been well-received.
Gopalratnam is one of four Penn students who run the site pennfoodtrucks.com, which catalogues and posts menus for various food trucks in the University City area. He said the trucks are particularly suited to Penn students, who are always on the go but may be more concerned about the quality of ingredients and less concerned with the price.
The prices do often run higher for these new trucks precisely because of their high-quality ingredients.
“Our truck isn’t for everybody,” Coup de Taco’s Berman said. “We’re not trying to compete with the Chinese food truck who serves people a massive platter for $3. Our food is a step above that — it’s unique, it’s better for you.”
And unlike other trucks, these new food truck owners aren’t merely here to eke out a living. They’re in for the long haul, which means hiring employees to run the trucks so they can focus on expanding.
“I’d love to open more trucks or a storefront, but the goal right now is to continue to get this one fully operational without my day to day involvement in the truck,” Hub Bub’s Crockett said. He is considering deferring business school for another year to do so.
Coup de Taco also functions as a catering business, and Berman and Henretig talk of one day opening a chain of fast, casual restaurants in the style of the truck. Sugar Philly is looking into opening a second truck.
But for now, they’re happy to be on the forefront of the burgeoning movement.
“It’s hip, it’s exciting,” Berman said. “It’s more than just getting food, it’s the experience of getting food.”
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