Philly Food Truck Wars
Crammed inside the galley kitchen of a converted box truck, Robin Admana forms a mass of dough into a baseball-size wad and plops it onto a sizzling waffle iron. Her little truck fills with the aroma of caramelizing sugar and fried dough as globs of batter bubble over the sides of the press. It’s not the most elegant culinary process, but a minute later, out comes an airy golden-brown creation.
Cribbing off styles of waffle-making popular in the cities of Liège and Brussels, Admana has manned these irons for the past year, transforming the curb next to 30th Street Station into a miniature Belgium-on-the-Schuylkill. “I spent a lot of time in Europe for work in my old job, and waffles were very familiar to me as a street food,” says Admana, a beaming former legal administrator who runs the Foolish Waffles truck with partner Flo Gardner.
It can be easy to see Admana and the new crop of “mobile food” proprietors simply as the descendants of the familiar salt-pepper-ketchup breakfast truck, but there are more differences than similarities. Like many owners of the new wave of food trucks and carts, Admana wants to bring haute cuisine to the masses. Fancy waffles are enough of a curiosity on the streets of Philadelphia, but even Liège’s quaint oublieurs would struggle to recognize their doughy creation in Admana’s hands — slathered in a chili honey glaze, topped with fried chicken, or even in a trendy $8.50 banh mí incarnation. She also sells her own artisanal black pepper bacon toffee out of the truck, next to branded “Foolish Waffles” trucker hats.
And unlike the Greek immigrant slinging cheesesteaks to put his kids through college, she sees this truck more as a form of dream realization — she swapped a lucrative but soul-crushing corporate career in favor of a low-cost first step toward building a culinary empire. “I knew a while ago I wanted to get out, and I started culinary school,” Admana says. “We thought about opening up a little brunch spot or coffee shop, but there just wasn’t the money to do that. We figured this would be a good stepping stone for us.”
Philly’s mobile food scene has exploded of late, with nearly 70 new gourmet trucks popping up in the past few years alone (out of about 300 vendors operating citywide). And we’re actually just catching up to the cities across the country that gave birth to the trend. L.A. counts some 3,200 food trucks and carts; the city of Portland, with just over a third the population of Philadelphia, has more than 700.
The question is whether Philly can ever achieve Portlandia status. Our antiquated laws regulating street vending make it hard to find curbside real estate. Competition for limited sidewalk space is still so fierce — old-school egg-and-cheese vendors locked down most of the good legal spots years ago — that Admana says she sometimes pays one of her six employees to get up early and squat on a desirable location until the truck can arrive.
Still, things are changing. The new guys have organized, forming a trade group that caters to gourmet trucks (Admana is a member) and drafting legislation that could make Philly the next mobile food mecca. As is the case with neighborhood gentrification, not everyone’s sure that would be a good thing. There are still a lot of those bacon-egg-and-cheese guys out there, and many of them live with a simple fear: that the kaleidoscopic army of trucks with funny names and complicated food is coming to put them out of business.
FOR 30 YEARS, John Torofias has made cheesesteaks to support his family. It’s not glamorous work. Crammed into a humid stainless steel box truck near 34th and Market, he’s diced up rib eye and served, on the low end, probably 100,000 cheesesteaks to Drexel students over the years. Day in, day out, he hunches over a steaming griddle that bakes him on scorching summer days but isn’t quite hot enough to take the chill off deep winter. There’s fatigue behind Torofias’s smile.
That weariness comes in part, no doubt, from the new gourmet lunch trucks that have crowded around campus of late. “When I started 30 years ago, there was nobody over here. I was the only truck for 15 years,” Torofias says. “It’s good from a competition perspective; people have more variety to eat. But at the same time, it does put a dent in your business. I work 14 hours a day. You want to see some return for what you put in.”
Torofias is now rubbing shoulders with a shiny yellow arepas truck and a cart that sells Japanese street food. He paints a metaphor about how Microsoft must have felt when Apple started dominating the tech market with flashy new computers and iOS devices in the 2000s. It’s kind of a clunky analogy, but the point is, in Torofias’s eyes, he’s Microsoft.
If the Philadelphia Mobile Food Association, a trade group founded in 2012, has its way, Torofias will have even more neighbors. PMFA president George Beiber, a clean-cut guy from Pottstown who runs the Sunflower Truck Stop (hawking $8 green curry BLTs and pulled-pork “naanwiches”), says his group has already spent years working out proposed legislation that could open up hundreds of new spots for food vendors by allowing vending on private property. “There’s 30,000 vacant lots in Philadelphia. That’s a lot of opportunity,” says Beiber. “Some of those lots sit vacant for years. Why not in the interim, if the owner is willing, get some food trucks in there?”
That’s just one item on Beiber’s wish list. He also wants to radically simplify a confusing 20-page list of “prohibited streets” that arbitrarily determines where vendors are allowed to set up. And he hopes to change the regulations in high-traffic areas — like University City — that are considered “special vending districts” and operate by a different set of rules.
In those districts, parking-spot locations are permanent, so new vendors are only allowed in when someone dies or retires. Unfortunately, PMFA members say, that’s inspired a black market for vending spots near the universities. Indeed, a recent Craigslist post advertised a lunch truck for sale in University City with a suspiciously high asking price: $165,000. (Used state-of-the-art trucks rarely go for more than $80,000.) This particular seller flatly admitted in a phone conversation that he was asking for more because the vehicle comes packaged with a parking permit for the University City Vending District and a fresh health certificate. In other words, pay a premium, step into the truck, and forward questions from pesky inspectors to the old owner, whose name stays on the city’s paperwork.
For Beiber, cracking open these choice districts is the biggest prize of all, particularly the “no-fly zone,” as he calls it, that bars trucks from all of Center City. (Sidewalk carts are permitted.) The food trucks in LOVE Park, intended to showcase what a hip, progressive city Philadelphia has become, were actually opened under a regulatory loophole — trucks are technically allowed on city parkland.
Interestingly, Beiber and his group are probably going to get most of what they want, and sooner rather than later. Last year, PMFA started getting pro bono assistance from white-shoe law firm Ballard Spahr to draft Council legislation that would strip away many of the restrictions on food trucks. Then, in late January, Councilman Mark Squilla introduced two bills aimed at freeing up food trucks to operate on private property, parking lots and more city-owned land. Squilla vowed to work on further deregulation.
The cultural winds are in Beiber’s favor. Similar battles have already been won elsewhere across the country, and PMFA knows it. The group, in a way, is a franchise, one of many that have sprung up around the nation with the help of Matthew Geller, uncomfortably described by the New York Times as the “Cesar Chavez” of the yuppie food-truck movement. Geller, who co-founded the first gourmet truck MFA in Southern California (and subsequently established the National Food Truck Association) to push for looser regulations, was approached several years ago by a Mount Airy-based truck owner who asked for help setting up a trade group here. Geller wrote the template for the PMFA’s bylaws, and one former president of that group refers to him as “the godfather” of the gourmet food truck scene in Philly.
While Geller notes that every street vendor stands to benefit from smarter regulations, he admits his movement has struggled to attract old-school guys like Torofias. Their prevailing view tends to be: I already have what I need to get by, so why stir the pot? Or, more cynically: Why invite more competition?
Geller dismisses these attitudes as blatant protectionism, and he’s probably right. But the rift between new and old is still striking. Out of PMFA’s 91 members, perhaps only five are “traditional” food vendors. That isn’t for lack of trying; a number of established vendors interviewed for this article say PMFA has reached out to them. They simply aren’t interested in joining.
There are indications PMFA may be giving up on inclusivity. George Beiber notes, for example, that many of the older trucks are unsanitary and unattractive, and that some sit on the street for days, weeks or even years, in blatant violation of city rules that say every vendor must return to a commissary for daily cleaning. Questions about how, exactly, “roach coach” operations have been able to elude city inspectors for a year or 10 elicit a lot of sotto voce muttering and off-the-record allegations of misconduct from newer operators, some of whom say they’ve received tickets for comically minor infractions, like parking on the wrong side of a “permitted” block or not having the correct number of spatulas.
But the stakes aren’t necessarily small. The explosion of a faulty gas tank attached to a taco truck run by an immigrant family in Feltonville last summer left two vendors dead and brought food-truck regulation back into the news. Over the summer, Gary Koppelman, a PMFA sponsor who runs a commissary that caters to gourmet trucks, charged that corner-cutting and bad maintenance are common among “traditional” food trucks and likely contributed to the explosion.
“People like that shouldn’t be in business,” he says. “If you’re undercapitalized, just because you’re an entrepreneur and you have the drive to go into business doesn’t mean you should. If you’re undercapitalized, you’re threatening people’s lives.”
FOR ANYONE WITH a long memory, the current state of Philadelphia’s mobile food industry is an ironic reversal. In the late ’80s, L&I was under fire for not doing enough to enforce laws designed to curb street vendors, whose presence had exploded during the Bicentennial and never tapered off. Numbering more than 4,000 at the time (including curbside junk sellers and produce trucks), street merchants organized to defend themselves under the banner of the United Vendors Association. The UVA scheduled mass lunch-hour closures of Center City’s hot-dog carts and fruit-salad trucks and instructed members to flood Council chambers whenever there were hearings about tightening enforcement.
While framed by advocates as a sanitation and pedestrian-safety issue, the debate over vendor regulations had a distinctly classist tinge at the time. In Council testimony, regulation proponents disparagingly compared Philadelphia to “third world” cities because of the carts and trucks. The Chamber of Commerce said the vendors were “a symbol of what’s wrong with our city.” The debate raged for years until a compromise was finally passed — the current laws that ban food trucks (and most junk sellers) in Center City while leaving the rest of the city more or less alone.
Back then, wealthy downtown business interests were trying to kill off breakfast carts and grease trucks, mostly staffed by Greek and East Asian immigrants. Today the class roles are switched, as fancy gourmet taco sellers and mobile brick-oven pizzerias are literally having deregulation legislation ghostwritten by a downtown law firm.
At Drexel, John Torofias says he doesn’t begrudge the PMFA or its efforts to simplify the city’s bureaucracy. “I can understand their plight, and I can understand what they’re trying to do at times,” he says. “I don’t want to say, but sometimes government is a little slow.”
But this battle is about more than just government catching up with the times. It’s a larger metaphor for where Philadelphia is headed as a city. Do we keep confusing, sclerotic policies in place to stick it to yuppies and stave off the frightening specter of change for a few more years, or can we evolve and adopt a system that actually functions? Sure, there’s an intrinsically annoying aspect to the twee new food trucks, and something comforting about the egg-and-cheese man. But change is coming, one way or the other.
Originally published as “Get the Truck Outta Here” in the March 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.