For most Penn students, especially those not on a dining plan, food trucks are a staple of campus life. Weekdays at noon, lines can stretch up to more than 30 people just to get a good gyro or a fruit smoothie.
But what does a regular day for a food truck look like, beyond the few moments of interaction with them that we witness for our lunch break? Who are the people behind the Plexiglas windows? What is it like to view campus from the other side?
I get to Sugar Philly “truck” at around 2 p.m. on a Friday afternoon. Dan Tang, the truck’s 28-year-old head chef and a co-owner, greets me even before he turns around, his uncanny awareness of his surroundings immediately evident. When he finally does turn around, I’m greeted with a cordial smile and a “hop on in.”
My first impression of the inside of the truck is how small it is. The space is almost claustrophobic for one person, and nearly unworkable with two — think of a high-rise kitchenette stuffed inside a Hill double.
And yet Tang seems to move around it with ease, constantly juggling people’s orders, piping the endless stream of macarons the truck seems to hold and, on top of it all, maintaining steady conversation. His blue button-down and red shorts are stained with icing — the apron he’s wearing is apparently just for show — and his shoe is untied, but he hardly seems to notice.
“I was a poli-sci major at Temple,” he begins. “Baking and cooking was really just a hobby. It’s honestly because of a random series of events that I started doing this.”
Random or not, it has paid off. Sugar Philly is now a destination not just on campus, but in Philadelphia. The truck’s following is only growing, with constant rankings and new macaron flavors and desserts coming out. On Sept. 11, Sugar Philly was featured by Yahoo! Travel as one of the top places in Philadelphia to visit. “Of all the trucks on Penn’s campus, I think it’s safe to say we’re the ones who’ve gotten the most national recognition,” Tang said.
The majority of Sugar Philly’s customers, though, are still from the Penn community. Tang seems to know this community well. He often greets customers who come up to the truck by name and even knows some of their orders without asking. He jokes with one when she says she just came with her friend and isn’t ordering any this time, taunting her with the special flavors of the day, which, just because she isn’t buying any, he isn’t going to make again.
Engineering sophomore Lauren Leung frequents Sugar Philly enough that she has become one of Tang’s regulars. “I was a social media-crazed freshman, always on the lookout for potential Instagram opportunities, when I found Sugar Philly. There was a time during my freshman year when I went to the truck every day,” she said in an email.
“I’ve toned down a bit now, but I still visit the truck at least twice a week,” she said. “I had never really liked macarons and remembered them as being stale, bland and totally not worth the hype. At Sugar Philly, the flavors were true to name and the ingredients tasted fresh and buttery. They were nothing like the desserts I had expected, and I was totally hooked.”
At the time Tang started Sugar Philly, his only cooking experience had come from a study abroad trip that he took to Rome during college. “I know this sounds so cliche, but I honestly probably would not have started Sugar Philly if it were not for that trip. I discovered my passion for cooking there.”
Just a few months later, Tang and his business partners purchased the truck and completed all the necessary paperwork from the city. They opened for business on Jan. 20, 2010.
“We started that day outside the Penn Bookstore, which is like totally illegal,” Tang laughs. They moved to their current location at 38th and Sansom streets a few months later. Despite a location slightly off of Penn’s beaten path, Sugar Philly’s macarons are so popular that — not including any wholesale or catering requests they take — they go through upwards of 700 a day.
But the business wasn’t always as successful as it is now.
After graduating from Temple University in 2008, Tang moved to New York, hoping to become a consultant. He explained” “I worked there for about a year, but that part of me that loved to be in the kitchen wasn’t fulfilled,” he said.
Tang looks around, half bemused and half grateful for the opportunity he embraced. That opportunity came knocking less than a year after he moved to New York, when in May 2009, John Suh, a friend of Tang’s from college and a 2008 Drexel graduate, called and asked Tang if he wanted to help start a food truck back in Philadelphia. “I was hesitant at first,” Tang said. Eventually he agreed, but not without some trepidation.
“The night before, I was so nervous. I messed up like 99 creme brulees,” Tang said. “I was just terrified that people wouldn’t like the food. I’m still terrified of that, honestly. Even with what we’ve accomplished, I still don’t feel like I’ve made it.” he admitted.
“I was 23 and being recognized by Business Week, the Food Network, ‘Live with Kelly and Michael.’ There are chefs who have been in the kitchen as long as I had been alive and had never gotten recognition for it. In that sense, I was really, really lucky,” Tang says.
At first it seemed like their unique approach to gourmet desserts was paying off, until Tang looked at the balance sheet.
Experiments with macarons, now their trademark sweet, weren’t always well-received. “We released the Milk and Honey flavor, which was a huge success,” he said. It’s not hard to see why the flavor appealed so much to Penn students. The shell is a combination of crunchy and chewy, and the inside is a light, sweet cream with just a hint of salt. “Then I tried to do more traditional flavors — like the really aromatic ones you see in Paris, and I thought everything was going great, until I looked at our numbers and our sales were actually going down,” he says.
“It was one of the more arrogant times of my life,” Tang admits. He shrugs and shifts uncomfortably, clearly remembering the sobering moment. But, as he seems to do with everything, he’s taken it in stride. “It forced me to really get to know my audience,” he says.
Now, Sugar Philly has new macaron flavors almost daily, with varieties ranging from Banana and Walnut to Froot Loop. On tap the day of my visit are Milk and Honey, Tiramisu, Chocolate Ganache, Peanut Caramel Apple, Green Tea and Black Sesame Raspberry.
Tang seems determined not to fall into the trap of stagnant flavors again. “I almost never go more than two weeks without creating a new flavor,” he says. “I honestly don’t know how I do it.”
“At this point, I think we have upwards of 300 flavors that we’ve done, but I never write any of them down. I’m terrified of getting stuck again,” Tang admits. Since I’ve been here, he’s hardly gone more than two or three minutes before another customer arrives with a new order.
Even with their flavors, Sugar Philly shows an incredible amount of innovative culinary genius — and Tang seems determined to maintain that image. “In each of our flavors, it’s important to me that they don’t just taste good, but that they feel right,” he said.
But a cookie is a cookie, right? Wrong.
“You know how when you eat a strawberry, and you get that nice, crisp, fresh feeling? It took me forever to replicate that feeling in a strawberry macaron, but I wouldn’t release it until I did,” he says.
These days, Tang has largely stepped away from the day-to-day baking, though he can still be found in the truck during the day. “It was really tough to walk away from that aspect of the business, but I kind of realized that this wasn’t going anywhere if I didn’t,” Tang said.
Instead, he is focusing more of his efforts on the business side of things, like finalizing permits for a new truck in a to-be-determined second location.
After I’ve been at the truck for a few hours, Tang’s other business partner, 2003 College graduate Franklin Shen, shows up unexpectedly. He and Tang greet each other with the kind of banter that only exists between 14-year-old boys and old friends.
But after a few minutes, the conversation shifts. In between the steady stream of customers, they discuss permits, licensing and new business purchases. They both show a keen sense of pragmatic idealism that makes them as much businessmen as bakers.
Sugar Philly is currently expanding beyond their first location, and they’ve added two additional employees beyond the three original owners.
Twenty-year-old Angela DiCaprio takes over for Tang around 5 p.m., after I’ve already been tucked in my corner of the truck for three hours. But this isn’t the start of DiCaprio’s work day.
“Every morning I get here at 7:30 and go to our off-site kitchen to start baking the day’s macaron shells,” she explains. “I’m usually there for a few hours, and then I take a break and then come back in the afternoon to finish up the day and close the truck.”
DiCaprio graduated last year from the Art Institute of Philadelphia with a degree in baking and is now enrolled at the Community College of Philadelphia, where she is studying business. “The plan,” she says with conviction, pulling her shoulders back and looking up as she speaks, “is to open my own bakery someday.”
DiCaprio is petite, with strikingly large eyes and sandy-brown hair cropped short. There’s something about her that seems incredibly young, but there’s also a toughness to her that makes me believe her bakery will come to fruition.
DiCaprio has been with Sugar Philly for more than a year, and her responsibilities have grown over that time. She is now the point-person for catering orders.
“I remember, during my interview with him before I’d even gotten the job, he said to me ‘We don’t make failures; we make mistakes’ — and I’ll never forget that,” she says.
It’s exactly that kind of optimism and ingenuity to which both Tang and DiCaprio credit Sugar Philly’s success.
“Working in a truck certainly presents its challenges. We always joke that it’s climate controlled in here — whatever it is outside is exactly the temperature it is in here,” Tang says.
“But it also has its advantages,” he goes on to explain. “It’s a lot less pretentious, a lot more innovative and it forces you to overcome a lot of different hurdles, which creates some interesting challenges — the good kind,” Tang says.
DiCaprio agrees, citing a woman who comes by the truck not long after she takes over who is surprised to see DiCaprio piping macarons. “People are shocked when they realize how fresh everything is. They don’t realize how much we’ve been able to overcome in a truck,” she says.
By the end of the day, Tang seems utterly exhausted, but a smile is still plastered on his face. He concludes his time with me with some simple advice: “What you think of the world today is not what it is, and chasing after money isn’t everything."
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