The closest you’ll get to heaven in West Philadelphia is a sizzling vegetarian meatball dripping in hot sauce and cheese. It’s a Monday afternoon in the fall, and you’re starting to feel the weight of the work that you didn’t do over the weekend. Between your 11 am and 1 pm lectures, you wander over to Houston Hall, hunching your back to the cold and tucking your hands into the sleeves of your sweater. Students bustle around you, whining about a class, lusting after a Hinge match, chuckling through a story of last night’s drunken mistakes. But you can’t hear anything except the growl of your stomach.
You smell it before you see it—the intoxicating aroma of fresh falafel, veggie chili, and spanakopita snakes around the side of Houston Hall and captures your attention. Curious, you follow your nose to the food trucks lined up around the corner. And there you see it: a green–covered, steel–plated paradise on wheels. It’s Magic Carpet: the vegetarian, Mediterranean–style food truck that lives on Penn’s campus. After a few minutes in the rapidly–growing line and a heartwarming conversation with the couple behind the counter, you resolve to return the next day.
Deb and Dean Varvoutis are the longtime owners of Magic Carpet. The pair have survived the birth of the food truck scene in Philly, working long days tucked between other struggling vendors, vying for a few extra dollars. They’ve dedicated their lives to serving the Penn community, greeting groggy students with kind smiles and witty conversation for over 30 years. Now, however, the COVID–19 pandemic has severely impacted the food industry, and specifically food trucks like Magic Carpet. Federal and state funding, such as the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, a part of the CARES Act, while helpful to keep food on the table for a few months, has not nearly covered the losses Magic Carpet and other trucks have incurred since March. In March 2020, the National Restaurant Association expected a $225 billion loss with 5 million to 7 million job losses as a result of the pandemic.
36 years pre–pandemic, right before Magic Carpet opened in West Philadelphia, the city was experiencing a commercial renaissance. Philly’s food ecosystem was supported by vendors from Delaware and South Jersey who flocked to the streets for payday on Thursday and Friday. With shopping malls and food courts cropping up, outdoor stalls were packed into a haphazard marketplace layout. Most of the vendors were immigrants from countries in Eastern Europe and Asia and they boasted a diverse array of fresh, cultural food and handmade products.
Dean describes the crowded streets as containing “everything from clothing, COACH bags, things from Guatemala, plants, jewelry, you name it.”
Dean grew up in the street–food community. Before opening Magic Carpet in 1984, he ran a falafel place with his brother. When he moved on and started Magic Carpet with an ex–girlfriend, he retained some of the same customers. However, the road wasn’t easy. Dean laughs, remembering that on his first day working the Magic Carpet, he made $7.
As Philadelphia developed, the city cracked down on unlicensed vendors, limiting the number of food trucks that could occupy the streets and raising rent. Because of this pressure and the city’s development, many vendors moved to indoor locations like Reading Terminal and Headhouse Square, and others went out of business due to the increased availability of fast food and shopping malls. The remaining food trucks, including Magic Carpet, migrated to college campuses like Temple, Drexel, and Penn, where they set up more permanent locations. Upon moving to West Philly, Magic Carpet worked to break in hesitant customers who were already loyal to other food trucks, settled in University City, and took on new employees, including Deb.
“I met Dean 34 years ago through his brothers and started working in Magic Carpet.”
Deb smiles and then adds, “And obviously we're married now.”
Their secret to growth? No advertising and a classic menu. And after three decades, Magic Carpet has a loyal following of Penn students and alumni, who come back for more day after day and year after year.
“We feed a lot of repeat customers and the children of customers, friends or so on and so forth. Our business has grown by word of mouth,” says Deb, who notes that they have not changed the menu items in 30 years. “If you were a grad student in 1986, and you were dropping your children or your grandchildren off today, you could still get the same thing,” Deb says.
Monica Kruse (C ‘89) arrived on campus as a fresh–faced transfer in the late August heat of summer 1986. A frazzled sophomore dropped into an unfamiliar city, Kruse walked from her apartment on 45th and Pine Street to campus every morning and spent the entire day in and out of classes. One morning, on a break between classes and studying, she followed her nose to the food trucks near Houston Hall. Monica was not on a University meal plan, so she picked up most of her meals from the food trucks or a nearby Chinese restaurant. After a few short weeks, she stumbled upon the holy grail of food for students on–the–go: Magic Carpet.
At first, Monica came back for their veggie chili.
“I would walk up there, and they knew exactly what I wanted and they'd ask me, ‘Chili?’ And I'd say ‘Yes, please.’ And they'd automatically put on that hot sauce. And they'd automatically put on extra cheese,” Monica remembers.
One day, while she watched the hot sauce and cheese pile up on a steaming serving of veggie chili, a young medical student caught Monica’s eye. The next week, she saw him again. She began frequenting Magic Carpet in hopes of running into him, timing her visits with his. After a few (more than) chance encounters, they began to talk and started dating.
A few months later, as the green foliage of Locust Walk turned to yellow and orange and Penn students donned jackets and coats for their morning classes, Monica and Lakota celebrated their first Halloween together. Monica decided to dress up as Jeannie from I Dream of Jeannie, a staple of 1960s television. The show tells the story of an eccentric, scantily–clad, magic–toting genie who is rescued by a U.S. astronaut. Jeannie’s most iconic feature: a tiny pink cap and sash. On a routine trip to Magic Carpet, the food truck’s bright pink styrofoam bowls caught Monica’s eye. They were the perfect shape and size for Jeannie’s cap. As Deb scooped her a bowl of chili, Monica asked to grab one of the empty bowls to complete her iconic look. Magic Carpet was an integral part of Jeannie's look and Monica’s halloween costume—it’s also an integral part of the Penn community.
Now, Monica and Lakota Kruse’s daughter Elisa (C ‘22) frequents the spot of her parents’ love story. “I don’t think she has a favorite spot [to eat on campus],” Monica muses, “but she knows the Magic Carpet is mine.”
Before the pandemic, for over three decades since its inception, Magic Carpet operated two carts, a kitchen staff, and eight full time employees. Their evenings were leisurely, following a few hours of hard work. One of the workers clocked in at 7 am to begin setting up for the day, and the rest arrived at 10 or 11 to serve a growing line of half–awake, sweatpants–clad Penn undergrads, surgeons and nurses getting off their last shifts, and grad students and professors disgruntled from a late night of grading. Over the next few hours, they dished out baked tofu, giant meatballs, and their famed banana chocolate chip cookies. The smell alone put a smile on their customers’ weary faces. By 3:30, they had served the last of their salivating customers and began to pack up for the day. Most days, Deb says they served a couple hundred people.
On March 16, 2020, the city of Philadelphia shut down. Amidst a whirlwind of chaos and uncertainty, Penn ushered students home, leaving campus mostly empty. Soon after, with University City left virtually vacant, small businesses began to close, including restaurants beloved by generations of students, like Beijing Restaurant. Magic Carpet, like many other food trucks and local businesses, scraped through the spring with their savings and a handful of straggling in–person customers. Since five months ago, Magic Carpet’s line has been down to 50 to 60 loyal students and weary medical professionals per day, and the food truck has been forced to cut their staff down to 3 workers.
Operating on a shoestring budget, Deb and Dean counted down the days until Penn students would come flooding back to campus and their business would pick back up again. However, on August 11, 2020, Penn reversed their plan to bring students back to campus in the fall.
“When you shut down campus, then that meant there was no fishnet there [for our business],” Dean said. He chuckles through his words, but I can tell that he and Deb are worried. As the weather gets colder and the semester ends, there will be even fewer potential customers left in University City.
But rather than be discouraged by continuous setbacks, Deb and Dean dug their feet in and took steps to build up their business. They applied for the Paycheck Protection Program, which provides loans to small businesses; although they were denied the loan the first time, they received a loan after applying again. To provide customers with classic Magic Carpet food from the comfort of their homes, Deb and Dean partnered with Grubhub to offer delivery. Finally, turning to their loyal customers in and outside of Philly for financial support, the pair created a GoFundMe to raise money and awareness.
For 36 years, Deb and Dean have woven Magic Carpet’s vegetarian cuisine into the vibrant fabric of the Penn community. Now, in the financial crisis created by the pandemic, it’s not just their business that’s at stake—it’s Monica’s memories of Penn, the familiar scene of trucks lined up on Spruce Street, and the very future of Philadelphia’s food truck economy. Deb and Dean are left with an unenviable task: not only holding together their business, but keeping alive its spirit that has meant so much to many generations of Penn students.
"We still have a long way to go," Dean says. "It's just heartbreaking to think that this virus is going to be the end of anybody, and it's put so many other small businesses out already."