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It takes money and moxie to operate a food truck

Dec. 23, 2011 - 16:24 By Korea Herald
PHILADELPHIA ― A rainy, windy forecast is a day to sleep in for many food truck owners. But the weather didn’t deter Jonah Fliegelman, Nathan Winkler-Rhoades, and Eric Hilkowitz, the owners of Pitruco, a 2-month-old, Ferrari-red pizza truck, from serving lunch recently at 33rd and Arch Streets, one of their regular spots. (Eric gets there at 8:30 a.m. to snag the space.)

Jonah called out to a customer, “Would you like an umbrella? We have some you can borrow.” He turned back to manning the truck’s centerpiece, a wood-fired oven where pizzas puff up to golden goodness.

On a day like this, they’ll be lucky if they serve 60 pies, says Winkler-Rhoades. In the world of food trucking, it’s just one of the many unknowns they battle daily.

Food carts and trucks have been a part of Philadelphia’s dining landscape for decades ― traditionally serving egg sandwiches, Chinese food, and cheesesteaks.

But since 2009, following a national trend, about two dozen new-breed truckers have rolled onto the scene, entrepreneurs serving highbrow foodstuffs like espressos and duck tacos. In fact, efforts are under way to organize an association of this new wave of trucks, to collectively lobby for their interests. In cities like L.A. and Portland, Oregon, where the mobile truck scene is thriving, a strong infrastructure helps hopefuls navigate the system and obtain affordable goods.

“Food trucks are a burgeoning, vibrant fun part of Philadelphia’s scene. ... We do everything we can to encourage innovative businesses like this to open and grow in our city,” says Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger, a self-professed frequent food-truck patron.
Tom McCusker (right) owner of Honest Tom’s taco truck, shares a laugh with business associate Andrew Pacella, Nov. 30, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.(Philadelphia Inquirer/MCT)

As with many aspects of the food industry, the romantic appeal often overshadows the rough reality. It is physically and financially challenging work. Some trucks ― like Latin Farmer, Tyson Bees, and Coup de Taco ― have closed after a short run, making it hard to tell if this is a viable industry or a short-lived trend.

For many fledgling truckers, a mobile eatery is a recession-friendly step toward restaurant ownership. But that doesn’t mean start-up and operating costs are low.

The Pitruco trio estimates they’ve invested around $25,000 to get started. The money came from financing and personal investments, and if sales stay steady, they will recoup start-up money by the end of the first year. Their truck is actually a trailer, hitched to a pickup that Fliegelman already owned, which kept costs down. Buying the oven, insulating it, and getting a generator were the biggest expenditures.

Andrew Crockett, who has owned HubBub coffee truck since 2009 ― making him a grandfather of the movement ― spent around $60,000 getting his vehicle ready. He has filtered water and an espresso machine. “If you don’t research you can get taken,” says Crockett. “One company was going to charge me $100,000.”

Most mobile vendors, as decreed by the health department, must rent a commissary to prepare the food. Ideally, the space can also provide a garage for the vehicle. Pitruco, HubBub, and a few others, pay about $450 a month for commissary/garage space in Grays Ferry.

Coup de Taco was co-owned by Jeff Henretig, who says that the price of his commissary had a huge impact on his truck’s viability.

Tom McCusker, owner of Honest Tom’s taco truck, one of the first on the scene, was parking his truck in an abandoned lot in West Philly, until neighborhood kids pushed it down a hill and into a porch. “Yeah, it’s nice to have a garage,” he says.

Other costs are for gas, insurance, employees, repairs and food.

Truckers experienced hard knocks along the way. Many wrote business plans and are highly educated (Crockett went to Penn, Winkler-Rhoades just got his Ph.D. from Harvard). Few have formal culinary training or extensive restaurant experience. Some who have survived a few years say sales are working out as good as, or better than, projections.

Permitting is another issue. There are the standard requirements: a business license, food license, and motor vehicle license, which range from $175 to $300.

Then, for trucks (not carts), there are options. University City is the only district where trucks can basically own a spot. There are a fixed number of spots available, and names are plucked from a waiting list as they open up. Truckers can request locations, and the city tries to accommodate, but it’s luck of the draw. That license costs $2,750 a year, and spot owners do not have to feed the meter. Thanks to the tight budgets and robust metabolisms of students, these spots are desirable. (HubBub was on the wait list for two years, Pitruco for two months.)

Those who want to roam can do so freely. But, they can stop only in city-approved zones, and must abide by local parking rules. Center City, from Vine Street to South Street and river to river, is not approved for moving trucks, with a few exceptions, such as LOVE Park. (The city charges truckers $75 a day.)

“Having a spot is just like having a storefront,” says Crockett. “Some are better than others.” Besides location, there are plenty of other revenue-affecting factors. “Anytime the weather isn’t good, people don’t want to be outside eating,” says McCusker. “It’s rough.”

Low-volume days, due to holidays and student schedules, need to be accounted for. And the city doesn’t allow vending past midnight, making selling late-night snacks officially illegal.

Don’t forget to add 16-hour days to this equation.

All the truckers recognize that alternative revenue streams are vital to the bottom line. Catering, selling wholesale, and participating in festivals like the Food Trust’s Night Market are key. “Blocktoberfest (South Street’s October block party with food trucks) was still one of our most profitable days,” says Winkler-Rhoades as he stretches dough for the next customer who, rain or not, came for his pie.

By Ashley Primis

(The Philadelphia Inquirer)

(Distributed by MCT Information Services)