Troy Harris and Kareem Wallace consider themselves the lucky ones.
Each morning, they wake up in their West Philadelphia homes surrounded by their families, and head to work at Hillel’s Falk Dining Commons. As workers with steady jobs who successfully led the charge to unionize dining hall workers on campus last year, the two say they are proud to hold respectable jobs - more than others in their neighborhood can say. Harris noted that some of his neighbors have criminal records, which make it difficult for them to find work. They are at risk of falling back into illegal activity. “The streets got no love for nobody,” Harris said.
Harris said success generates animosity in his community. “If you’re making more than your next-door neighbor ... they don’t like you,” he said. But instead of returning the hatred, Harris decided to partner with Wallace to change the lives of others in their community - with a food truck.
“Grassroots” is the name of the vegetarian kosher food truck that Harris and Wallace hope to create as a - literal - vehicle of change. They plan to launch the business this summer in the West Philadelphia area, when Falk Dining Commons is closed and they are off work. The pair plan to continue working at Penn during the school year.
College senior Eliana Machefsky helped the pair launch a crowdtilt page on March 1 to raise money to buy the food truck and fund the initial operating costs. The page tilts at $41,025.64, meaning that this amount must be reached by the page’s expiration date on April 7 in order for the money to be collected. So far, the page has raised over $15,000 and has a target goal of $70,000.
The project is two years in the making. “[We want to] do it slow so we won’t come out fast and say, ‘Okay we tried and it’s over,’” Harris said.
Harris and Wallace dreamed up the idea before they they joined Teamsters Local 929, hoping to find a way to make an honest, dignified living of their own. However, with the help of the Student Labor Action Project’s “Justice on the Menu” campaign, through which they renegotiated their contracts to become unionized workers last fall, they felt empowered and proud to hold good jobs that proved to their kids and community that hard work pays off.
“Look at me, I’m living proof,” Harris said. “I never stop striving.” Rather than working for a profit, they hope to create a “business on seeing a few good men work hard and do good things with it,” Harris said.
Grassroots will hire struggling men and women in their communities to help them get onto a steady path to success. Harris projected employing about 25 workers in the next two to three years, but said for now they will just hire one person to cover deliveries, and another to work the register. He has already talked to a few people from his community looking for work about the positions. He hopes that Grassroots will be a jumping off point for out of work people in his community, providing them with the necessary work experience and references to successfully apply for other jobs and launch a career.
High school-aged employees will also be required to go to school. “Show us what you’re doing to earn what you’re getting,” Harris explained as the philosophy behind this policy. He and Wallace plan to visit local schools themselves to spread the message of how it is possible for people of their background to earn an honest living, Wallace said.
“Hard work and dedication can do anything,” Wallace said. “We are living proof.”
Harris and Wallace worked with Consult for America, a student-run consulting group that works pro bono to help small local businesses in West Philadelphia. Grassroots was one of the first clients of CFA, so the team spent an entire year working on this project instead of the standard semester-long term they typically spend on cases, Wharton junior and CFA Co-Founder Samaira Sirajee said. During that time, the group surveyed students and local food trucks to evaluate the market, and also conducted a food tasting at a local Jewish fraternity house at the end of last semester, where their sandwiches and panini were the crowd’s favorites. CFA convinced Harris to make their food truck vegetarian, not just kosher, because they determined there was a better market for this type of food.
Sirajee has high hopes for the business, but was initially concerned about its funding. “We’re starting to find that piece that will make his dream into reality,” Sirajee said.