At the first official meeting of the Philadelphia Mobile Food Association (PMFA), Dan Pennachietti is shaking hands — with everyone. “Dan,” he says, slipping out of one palm and into the next, “I’m Dan, good to see ya.” He is wearing a plaid button–up shirt; the first time I met him, by his truck at Center City’s Love Park, he wore a black tee with the slogan “It’s gravy — not sauce!” printed across the front (he’d seemed disappointed that I arrived early — he was planning to run out and change).
Tonight, the association's steering committee and its potential members have assembled to form a union. As the Italian Mayor Daley of food truckers, Dan knows everyone, and wants everyone to know him. “It’s important to me that my business is looked upon in a friendly way,” he told me. “I care about your business and I care about your time.”
To call Dan a people person would be a titanic underestimation, but tonight he seems nervous. And so does Andrew Gerson, the hopeful owner of Strada Pasta, a food truck he’s been trying to launch since he returned from culinary school in Italy last year. “I just wanted to thank you all for being here tonight,” Gerson says as he takes the podium, “It’s really beautiful to see you all here.”
From a speaker somewhere, Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” begins to play and a PowerPoint is launched. It’s go time. You can tell. These guys are fed up. They want new regulations, less red tape and more intergovernmental communication. And judging from the crowd that packs the room, they’re not the only ones.
I've lived in University City for two years now; I am no stranger to mobile food. But my meeting with Dan was the first time I’d eaten at Center City’s Love Park, a haven for skateboarders and hungry Philadelphians. Situated just behind City Hall, the Park is named for the Robert Indiana sculpture installed there ten years after his initial one was placed on Locust Walk. Today, four trucks are stationed on the north side of the park: Pitruco Pizza, the brick oven–on–the–go; Jose Garces’s Guapos Tacos, which serves up everything from duck barbacoa to tortilla soup; boyhood friends Jonathan Adams and Damien Pileggi’s Rival Bros Coffee; and Lil’ Dan’s, the gourmet sandwicherie Dan named after the son he lost seven years ago. These are not the only food trucks in Philadelphia, and as Dan would probably tell you, they might not be the best ones, but they are the only ones allowed in the park. And this, according to Dan (and the other supporters of the PMFA), is the problem. Well, it’s one of them.
In order to park and operate where they do, Dan and the others pay the city $75 a day ($50 in the winter months). “They’re taking pavement space that they have and making money off it,” Dan said of Philadelphia, “It’s a great idea.” But Dan is a businessman. He’s a salesperson. Where the city sees a great idea, Dan sees a greater one — make it bigger and make it easier, and everyone makes more money. That’s his philosophy. “We go to city council and what are they worried about? They’re worried about revenue,” Dan explained when I asked him why Love Park was one of the few that Philadelphia opens up to truckers. “That revenue word scares people, like here it comes, this is how much it’s going to cost us. And it’s not. We’re about bringing you revenue, about bringing the neighborhood revenue.”
What Dan is talking about is the utilization of pilot lots — of vacant spaces owned either by the city or privately that can be taken up and beautified by truckers to generate income for themselves and for those to whom they’ll pay their fees. If the Mobile Food Association is as successful as it is planning to be, by this time next year there will be tens of Love Parks equipped with rotating rosters of food vendors springing up all over the city. This will give vendors the chance to try a new market and each community a chance to eat from a new vendor — it will facilitate the culinary culture that distinguishes mobile food venues from brick and mortar restaurants and take–out windows. And though in the past few years Philadelphia’s mobile food operators have gone beyond hot dogs, cheesesteaks and pretzels to provide everything from vegan barbecue beef hoagies to artisanal ice creams, they want to do more. They just need the place to do it.
Take New York’s Long Island City Food Truck Lot, for example. The lot was established by the New York City Food Truck Association (NYCFTA) last summer after Queens cracked down on vending out of metered spaces. It has the capacity for 16 trucks, and the NYCFTA is charged with organizing the rotation. Los Angeles, too, has capitalized on these extra spaces. The Southern California Mobile Food Association and its attorneys have worked tirelessly to open the city and its periphery to food truckers; in 2011, the association sued the suburb of Monrovia for refusing to allow mobile vending on its streets. This kind of legal help will be indispensable in Philadelphia, too. It has been already. Last fall, Dan, Gerson and the other chairpeople of the PMFA teamed up with the University’s Entrepreneurial Legal Clinic, headed by Professor Praveen Kosuri, to get their organization off the ground.
It all started last November, when second–year Penn J.D./M.B.A. student Lauren Foote “quarterbacked” (this was Professor Kosuri’s word) a pro–bono project that would advise local entrepreneurs on starting a mobile food venture. Foote and several of her classmates created a presentation and organized a workshop to help disseminate their ideas to the community. The attendance at the workshop was impressive, and Andrew Gerson was in the crowd. And that’s how it all began. Gerson’s business proposal — his Culinary School thesis — met Foote’s pro–bono graduation requirement, and the impetus behind the Philadelphia Mobile Food Association was born. Since then, it has been taken up by the Legal Clinic, where students like Kimberly Wexler and Adam Katz are able to practice under Professor Kosuri’s license.
For much of her life, Verna Swerdlow owned a boutique optical store in Bryn Mawr. Then one day she decided she’d had enough of spectacles — she wanted to open a truck, and her boyfriend, Dave, a general contractor and the owner of a snow removal business, wanted to buy her one, but there were some conditions. “Dave said, look, I believe in you. Let’s give it three months,'” Verna told me at Town Hall Coffee in Merion Station. “Stop,” Dave interrupted. “You need to preempt that with the fact that Verna’s first thought for the menu was lambburgers on a lavash with tzatziki, feta cheese and tomatoes. Lamb is three dollars a pound. Is there a profit in this?” Turns out, there was. They found a truck and named it Vernalicious. On the day of her debut at the Bryn Mawr Farmers’ Market, Vernalicious sold out every pound of lamb in stock — 20, for the record. Then Verna and Dave closed up, went back to the commissary (the place trucks are required under current regulations to do all of their stocking, rationing and preparation for the day), restocked, and drove to Franklin and Girard for a night round (how late this went, they could not divulge; vending after midnight is another of the city’s no–no’s).
But things for Verna were not as easy as her first day made it look. In order to get their truck up and running in the city of Philadelphia, Verna and Dave needed to go through four different departments, with four different staffs between whom little is communicated. Those are the city’s Streets Department, Licensing and Inspection (or L&I, as everyone seems, through clenched jaws, to call it), the Health Department, and the Department of Commerce. “It seemed like the story kept changing. The closer we thought we were getting it seemed like the further away we became.” In the end, the price of certifying her truck was about $10,000, which, of course, was before it was subjected to L&I and the Department of Health.
If all goes according to plan, the PMFA will change all this, or streamline it at the very least. As a registered 501(c)6, they will have the ability to lobby for better rules and regulations and to bring industry–specific details to the attention of city officials. They won’t be required to have three sinks, like restaurants do (trucks don’t wash dishes on site, so the extra sink is unneeded), or be relegated to cutting rolls and packing patties in faraway commissaries. “City Hall is a very complex place,” Professor Kosuri explained, “I think the Mayor understands all this stuff, but the Mayor can’t act alone. Everything happens through City Council. That’s where it gets really complicated because you have … people who have a personal interest to maintain their power and to control what activity occurs in their ward, and sometimes that has nothing to do with what is best for the community or best for the city.”
Most importantly, the association will act as a venue for interaction and education among its members, which will include licensed cart and truck operators, potential or hopeful ones, and “allied members” (corporations related to the mobile food industry, like auto insurers and truck manufacturers). The association will, in a sense, give a name to a community that has laid roots in Philadelphia already, at least as far as Verna and Dave see it. “It’s a brotherhood,” Verna said, "We’re all trying to figure out what works for us, we’re all trying to make a living." In December, Dave fell 20 feet head–first off a ladder, breaking every bone in his face. The accident put the couple and Vernalicious out of commission for two months. When Dave left the hospital, the first thing he did was visit Love Park. On March 5, Vernalicious returned to Philadelphia, “Hey Drexel … You are our first stop on Wednesday after our 2 month ‘vacation.’ Do you think you could come show Dave some love?” she tweeted.
The meeting has ended. One by one and in small groups those who have come to see the PMFA form file out of the room and into the reception area outside. Some of them will join right there, some will go home to sleep on it in the few hours before they pack up and head to their commissaries, and, as occurs with all associations, some won’t join at all. Still, as two hopeful vendors in matching green shirts stoop to sign their membership papers, one word seems to reverberate in the halls of the Law School: solidarity.
And maybe in the end, Andrew Gerson will get his truck. “I figure we might be a year out. It’s still definitely something I’m passionate about,” he said. But for now, the association is the biggest thing on Gerson’s mind.
“There are other people out there without licenses, without certification. It makes it difficult for them to want to be part of the system. We want people in the system, paying their taxes and generating revenue, but the system has to allow for that. That’s where we see the association, as having the ability to be a part of the discussion. Let us have a voice at the table.”
Gerson said it: mobile food in Philadelphia is ready to go. Along with Dan and the several others who have stood up to get the association off the ground have taken their chances, they’ve gone the distance to codify what was only a few months ago just a series of ideas. But this is just the beginning.
PMFA, welcome to the city; we hope you’ll keep your grip.
Nina Wolpow is a Sophomore studying English. She's from Wellesley, MA and as of last week, her favorite food truck is Zsa's Gourmet Ice Cream Truck.