On a typical weekday around noon, lines of hungry students wait for delicious food from their favorite food trucks snaking down Spruce Street outside the Quadrangle. Meanwhile, right up the street similar lines can be seen through the windows of the various restaurants along Spruce toward 38th Street.
Whether you prefer an early morning breakfast sandwich from Lyn's or Bui's or a vegetarian meal from Magic Carpet, a large amount of Penn students partake in University City's food-truck culture every day. With over 60 trucks to choose from, students and faculty alike can enjoy a variety of different foods, ranging from Asian to Mediterranean and from bagels to desserts.
However, a lesser known fact about the food-truck scene at Penn is the big changes that have occurred around the University City food trucks. Specifically, a trend in more recent years sees thriving food trucks expanding from the truck model to full-time brick-and-mortar locations. Restaurants such as Greek Lady, HubBub Coffee and Pari Cafe Creperie in Houston Market have smoothly made the transition with the help of Penn Facilities and Real Estate Services.
Food trucks at Penn
The food-truck culture at Penn has been vibrant for about five years, according to FRES Executive Director Ed Datz. Over this period of time, it has evolved quite extensively, Datz said.
Tony Sorrentino, executive director of the Office of the Executive Vice President, attributes the popularity of food trucks at Penn and West Philadelphia at large to the uniqueness of retail in the area.
"We're proud in West Philly of this mix between the national retailers and the small mom-and-pop retailers," Sorrentino said.
Additionally, Sorrentino believes that the growth in food-truck popularity within the past decade comes in part from the recession, during which consumers were looking for "a delicious, but inexpensive product."
With cheap prices and quick serving time, food trucks are perfect for universities such as Penn that have "grab-and-go cultures," Sorrentino said.
Furthermore, food trucks bring variety to University City's food culture. "If you're an undergraduate student, we have really great dining halls, but sometimes you want something that the dining hall doesn't offer. If you're an employee, there are really great restaurants to choose from. Sometimes you want something that isn't one of our restaurants," Sorrentino said.
Why food trucks in the first place?
Food truck vending has expanded nationally due to the low barrier to entry for entrepreneurs interested in the the restaurant industry.
"It's a way to get into the mainstream economy for people who are immigrating and for people who are learning American business and commerce," Sorrentino said.
Additionally, owning and operating a food truck is a viable option for those interested in opening their own business but incapable of committing the time and resources necessary to keep a full-time restaurant running.
For example, Dean Varvoutis and Deb Carson, owners of the popular Magic Carpet food trucks located at 36th and Spruce streets and 34th and Walnut streets, opened their first location on Spruce back in 1984. They employed the food-truck model because they had a growing family and couldn't devote enough time to operate a full-time retail location.
Since the restaurant business is difficult and costly to enter, emerging food entrepreneurs, especially in the University City, are incentivized to start their business in a food truck. According to Pricenomics, a blog about data, economics and business, 25 percent of restaurants fail in their first year and 60 percent in their first three years. Food trucks are cheaper, less risky and make for a situation in which it is easier for entrepreneurs to break into, as seen in a number of food trucks around University City.
An important component of FRES operations with food trucks around Penn over the past couple decades has been the development of "open-air food courts," also known as "food truck plazas" around campus. There is one plaza outside Meyerson Hall at 34th and Walnut streets, one next to Pottruck Health and Fitness Center located at 3701 Walnut Street, one outside Weightman Hall at 235 S. 33rd Street and one at 40th and Locust streets.
As opposed to operating under Philadelphia regulations on the street, vendors at these locations operate on Penn property. They pay rent to Penn, and they are able to leave their trucks after hours instead of having to move them.
One of Magic Carpet's locations is at the plaza at 34th and Walnut streets. About 23 years ago, Penn invited Magic Carpet to this private location, Carson said. Operations are roughly the same at both locations, she said, but there tend to be more graduate students over at 34th and Walnut streets.
FRES helps many entrepreneurs, including food trucks, locate and move into real estate around University City when they express interest.
"The Real Estate team has provided guidance over the years to multiple entrepreneurs seeking to move from a food truck to a brick-and-mortar location. Two have successfully made this transition: HubBub and Greek Lady," Datz said.
After opening and successfully operating his coffee truck on 38th and Walnut streets in 2009, HubBub owner and 2005 College graduate Drew Crockett decided to expand into a full-time retail location.
"My goal was to build a brand and company," Crockett said.
Crockett made an effort to provide his customers with a "high quality experience and product in a different way," but found himself limited by weather and regulations due to the nature of operating out of a truck.
"It made sense to go to brick and mortar," Crockett said.
In 2010, Crockett met with FRES to move forward with expansion. Datz worked directly with Crockett to secure a storefront on campus, as locations tend to be competitive.
FRES focuses on helping entrepreneurs, including food-truck operators, come up with a business plan and find a location on campus to get started. They believe it is important to help small businesses thrive on campus.
"We help formulate the business model for them," Datz said. "We believe in entrepreneurship and we promote it."
The Office of the Executive Vice President, which oversees FRES, then steps in. FRES typically tries to place businesses in suitable Penn-owned retail spots if possible. If none are available, they leverage connections with other local property owners to find spaces for the entrepreneurs.
"Craig Carnaroli, the executive vice president, is involved with the retail leasing decisions that are made and campus planning decisions that are made," Sorrentino said.
While operating as a food truck proved to be "a good type of testing ground" for Crockett with HubBub, the business is happy with its new brick-and-mortar location at 3736 Spruce Street.
The next food-truck restaurant
Since opening in August 2013, Schmear It has become a staple in many Penn students' breakfast diets, offering New York-style bagels with a number of different topping options.
After graduating from the College in 2011, Dave Fine worked for a nonprofit, but wanted to start his own socially-conscious business. Now, he owns and operates the bright-red bagel truck usually parked at 38th and Locust streets, and donates a part of his weekly profits to selected nonprofits.
"I thought that was a very compelling model, and I wanted to see if it could be done in the food industry," Fine said.
Schmear It began featuring a biweekly cause immediately after opening, and in operating on this model, Fine allows consumers to "do good while eating the food."
"We'll automatically donate a percentage of your purchase to our featured nonprofit organization," the website states.
After operating for a couple of years and examining businesses such as HubBub that thrived on the opportunity for growth model, Fine made the decision to look into expanding to brick-and-mortar.
"It doesn't work for everyone, but I want to be able to provide greater capacity," Fine said.
Opportunity arose for Fine to expand into a full-time location with new construction bringing real estate to 36th and Market streets. The development known as 3601 Market is a new apartment building next to the University City Science Center. When completed, ground level retail will include Schmear It as well as a number of other restaurants including Herban Quality Eats, Danlu, Pizza Wings Steaks, Dunkin' Donuts and Jimmy John's.
"We're still waiting [to move in]," Fine said. His goal is to be up and running this spring.
But not all food trucks want to go brick-and-mortar. Magic Carpet hasn't made the effort to expand into a full-time restaurant over the past 30 years, but says it's not totally out of the question for the business to join HubBub and Schmear It.
"The model we have here could be expanded into brick-and-mortar," Varvoutis said.
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