It takes money and moxie to operate a food truck

Tom McCusker (right), owner of Honest Tom's taco truck, with business associate Andrew Pacella. McCusker is expanding into a fixed space in West Philadelphia, but will keep his truck operating. Weather and off-duty parking are problems he's faced.
Tom McCusker (right), owner of Honest Tom's taco truck, with business associate Andrew Pacella. McCusker is expanding into a fixed space in West Philadelphia, but will keep his truck operating. Weather and off-duty parking are problems he's faced. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 08, 2011

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 two-month-old, Ferrari-red pizza truck, from serving lunch recently at 33d 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. (See accompanying story.) In cities like L.A. and Portland, Ore., 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.

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.

Andrew Gerson, who plans to roll out an Italian truck, Strada Pasta, in the next few months, hopes to serve between 100 and 200 customers daily. Pitruco was aiming for 100 pizzas a day. In reality, that truck is serving an average of 60 to 70, or 100 to 120 if it also does dinner. The pies are priced between $6.50 and $9. "Some days we can do way less than that," says Winkler-Rhoades. And of course, the more partners, the more ways profits must be split.

HubBub has seen steady customers over the last couple of years. Crockett estimates that his truck serves 100 to 200 coffees a day. He pulls enough espressos to have employees and - like McCusker, who plans to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant in West Philly soon - is looking to expand.

"I want something more permanent," says Crockett, who is thinking along the lines of a coffee shop that can also serve as a commissary. "It'll be an extension of the brand." Like McCusker, he'll keep the truck cruising.

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.

Rallying the food truckers

Andrew Gerson is hoping his truck, Strada Pasta, will be ready to roll in a few weeks. He'll serve hand-rolled pastas, fresh sauces, and lasagna, to name a few Italianate dishes. Gerson thinks of his truck as a sustainable, alternative method of bringing accessible food to different areas of the city.

And he's spent a lot of time researching the way other cities (specifically Los Angeles and Portland, Ore.) have created prosperous mobile food industries. What he thinks our budding scene is missing: a central organization. Which is why he helped set up the first meeting of the Philadelphia Food Truck Association, on Dec. 12 at the Free Library. "We want to create a cohesive working relationship and open dialogue," says Gerson.

His goals are both communal and political. He hopes the association will allow truckers to share information (about things like affordable commissaries and trucks) and work with the city and activist groups to use trucks for good. For example, he says there are 6,000 abandoned lots in the city and he envisions that one day, trucks will be allowed to "turn them into something useful," by transforming these lots into sites for trucks selling food at a fair cost to city residents.

  - Ashley Primis

Handmade Tagliatelle With Sage, Crispy Bacon, and Brown Butter

Makes 4 servings

For the pasta:

5 eggs (preferably free-range)

2 cups pastry or all-purpose flour

¼ cup semolina

½ teaspoon salt

For the sauce:

4 slices thick-cut bacon

3 tablespoons salted butter

4 leaves fresh sage

4 tablespoons grated Parmigiano Reggiano

   1. To make the dough, separate the yolks from the whites of two eggs, set aside. Mix flour and semolina in a bowl, then turn onto a wooden board or flat counter surface in a mound. Make a well in the center of the flour. In a bowl, beat 3 eggs with the two egg yolks (reserve whites for other use) and salt. Pour egg mixture into the well and, using a fork, slowly incorporate the flour into the eggs until all the egg is absorbed. Using dough scrapers or hands, work the dough until it comes together. Form into ball, scraping up any dough that sticks to the board. Knead for 7-8 minutes more. Cover with plastic wrap or clean dish towel and let rest for 30 minutes.

   2. Meanwhile, make the sauce. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Place bacon on a sheet tray and cook until crisp, about 10-15 minutes, draining fat as needed. Let cool and cut into pieces. Heat butter in a saute pan over medium heat. Add sage. Cook until butter browns, then remove from heat and set aside. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil as you roll the pasta.

   3. Set the roller of a pasta machine to the widest width. Cut dough into 4 equal pieces. Flatten and form each piece into a rectangle. Dust with flour if sticky. Feed through roller 4-5 times, folding edges to form a rectangle. Once formed, begin to decrease the width of the roller, and pass the dough though once on each level. If the sheet gets too long, cut it in half. Place the tagliatelle (or other pasta) cutter on machine and cut pasta. Repeat with each ball. Dust with flour so cut pasta doesn't stick.

   4. Cook pasta for 2 minutes and drain, reserving 2 tablespoons of cooking water. Reheat sage butter over medium heat. Add pasta and pasta water to pan, stirring a few times. Turn off flame, add cheese, and divide onto four plates. Sprinkle with bacon and garnish with chopped sage, if desired. Serve.

- From Strada Pasta owner Andrew Gerson

Per serving: 659 calories, 14.3 grams protein, 93.2 grams carbohydrates, 0 grams sugar, 25.9 grams fat, 51 milligrams cholesterol, 774 milligrams sodium, 1.5 grams dietary fiber.

Honest Tom's Guacamole

Makes 6-8 servings

4 soft avocados

1 large garlic clove, diced

1 shallot, diced

1 jalapeño, seeded and diced

1-2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

1-2 limes

Kosher salt and black pepper

   1. Cut avocados in half, vertically, around the pit. Using a knife, remove the pit, and scoop flesh into a bowl. Add garlic, shallot, jalapeño, and as much cilantro as you prefer. Squeeze juice from one lime (more, if needed), and mash together, keeping slightly chunky. Add salt and pepper to taste and serve.

- From Honest Tom's Taco Truck

Per serving (based on 6 servings): 220 calories, 2.9 grams protein, 12.9 grams carbohydrates, 1 grams sugar, 19.7 grams fat, 0 milligrams cholesterol, 22 milligrams sodium, 9 grams dietary fiber.

Contact staff writer Ashley Primis at 215-854-2244,, or @ashleyprimis on Twitter.

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