Deb Varvoutis can multitask. She doles out falafel and veggie chili to polite students who’ve waited in line for 10, 15, 20 minutes, braving the January wind. In between all of her gentle "How are you?" and "Make sure you grab a fork!" banter with customers, she tells me about Magic Carpet, the food cart she’s worked at for the last three decades.
It’s 2 p.m. on a Friday. Deb told me to come after the lunch rush, but the line of customers is still constant into the early afternoon. Deb has a no–nonsense manner about her, which I suppose comes from 30 years of practice. She knows what to say, but she never sounds rehearsed when she explains how the combos work or when she asks you if you want sesame seeds on top. But she’s also somehow uniquely patient. She explains that there are two sizes of soup probably 12 times in our 40–minute conversation, but never seems agitated.
“It was supposed to be for two years,” she tells me. “He never intended to do this so long.” She’s talking about her husband, Dean, who founded Magic Carpet in 1984. Dean was an art student with a Greek background and some experience in food service. His brother suggested that he open a food cart back when there were just four on Penn’s campus.
Magic Carpet has grown since its tentative founding 33 years ago. Now, there are two double carts, one at the Lower Quad gate and one in Meyerson Courtyard on 34th. There’s a 2500 square foot commercial kitchen in South Philadelphia and an eight–person staff.
Magic Carpet is more popular than ever, which means the line of customers persists throughout the afternoon. “People tell their friends,” Deb reasons. And the food is more mainstream now. “Years ago people didn’t know what hummus was, they didn’t know what falafel was, they made faces when you told them vegetarian food.”
I ask Deb why Magic Carpet doesn’t serve meat. “It’s cleaner, you know,” she says. “It’s hard to keep fish fresh, and meat can get really nasty and dirty and icky.” The vegetarian thing just works. And anyone who can see the line of shivering students queueing along the sidewalk would have to agree.
But even with Magic Carpet’s growth in popularity, the business is basically the same. The menu has barely changed. In fact, Dean just recently rearranged the menu for the first time ever. “We tried to take some of the extra wording out,” Deb tells me. “Cause it’s too overwhelming, you know.” Dean and Deb try to maintain the same kitchen staff and keep recognizable faces running the carts.
Magic Carpet is so reliable that former students come back years later to see if their favorite food cart is still around. “We have parents now that are customers at move–in and move–out,” Deb says. “People have very fond memories of their time eating at Magic Carpet while they were at Penn.” Deb and Dean get recognized by past and present customers all the time—at Phillies games, concerts, once even on vacation in Key West. Magic Carpet’s food is imbued with an emotional significance, Deb thinks. “School can be so stressful,” she says with a sigh. Perhaps tofu meatballs and spinach pies are the antidote.
Magic Carpet is so reliably steady that it has accumulated an informal vocabulary over the years. “People have met in line and gotten married,” Deb tells me. “I call them ‘Magic Babies’ when I feed pregnant women all through their pregnancy.” Does that happen often? "All the time," Deb assures me. “Oh my gosh, there’s gotta be at least a hundred babies that are born in the last maybe five years. I’d love to have little onesies and bibs that say, ‘I’m a Magic Baby,’” she laughs. “Marketing 101, right?”
Possible trademark opportunities aside, Deb describes staffing the cart as “a nice way to spend the afternoon.” It’s warm inside a food truck, it turns out, even in the dead of winter. It’s the steam vents," Deb tells me. And the customers are generally pleasant. At this point, Deb’s figured out why. “You’re hungry and I’m feeding you. You’re not going to be mean to me, right?” she says. Sometimes, frequent customers open up to her. “I’m like the hairdresser/bartender,” she says. “They tell me stuff I probably shouldn’t even know sometimes.”
But Deb and Dean and their staff work long days, beyond the lunch hours. Dean makes all the soups each morning, Deb does paperwork at the office. Deb also bakes the famous Magic Carpet cookies, which are vegan, gluten–free, and only a dollar. “I could retire and just sell cookies,” she says. “It’s hysterical. It’s like a feeding frenzy some days.”
The flavor combinations are unlimited. Deb chooses the different fixings—banana, chocolate, almonds, anything really—and bakes the cookies fresh each morning. But just like all of Magic Carpet’s recipes, the cookie recipe is a secret. Deb wonders if she should charge more than just a dollar per cookie (“They’re vegan, gluten–free cookies for God’s sake,” she points out), but the price means that customers in a hurry can “throw their dollar and they’re off and running.”
When I ask Deb what she thinks makes Magic Carpet stand out from the abundance of food carts around campus, she responds without a beat. “We make really good food. Plain and simple,” she says. “I mean, we’re pleasant enough also, but we make really good food.”
With 30 years of success under their belts, Deb and Dean have considered expansion. Magic Carpet has name recognition and enough momentum for a brick–and–mortar restaurant, maybe even a franchise. And at 58, Deb and Dean have worked at Magic Carpet most of their lives. Could it be time for change? Deb insists that it’s a question of “getting the right energy.”
But a food cart means that Deb interacts with hundreds of students each day. “I’m a huge people person,” Deb says, handing a customer some quarters as change. “I’m also a very maternal person, so it satisfies my maternal instincts to feed people.”
Perhaps, Magic Carpet satisfies something in Penn students, too—something constant in a whirlwind four years? A familiar face in a urban sea of strangers? Or maybe, like Deb thinks, it’s just really good food.
At the end of our conversation, Deb sends me off with a cup of green curry soup and two cookies, banana and almond, both with chocolate. I try to pay for the food, but she insists it’s on the house, so I thank her and clutch the brown paper bag as I walk home.