Group formed to organize Philadelphia food-truck operators

Dan Pennachietti, a cofounder of the Philadelphia Mobile Food Association, hopes to unite food-truck owners into an influential voice. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Dan Pennachietti, a cofounder of the Philadelphia Mobile Food Association, hopes to unite food-truck owners into an influential voice. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Posted: April 01, 2012

Dan Pennachietti is a three-meatballs-are-better-than-one kind of guy, usually from an eating perspective. But lately, the Italian American food vendor in Philadelphia is applying his strength-in-numbers point of view beyond gastronomic cravings.

His goal is to improve the business climate in the city for his burgeoning industry.

Pennachietti has cofounded the Philadelphia Mobile Food Association (PMFA), incorporated as a nonprofit organization in February, to coalesce the concerns of a diffuse group of independent business owners into one influential voice. A nonthreatening voice, he emphasized.

"We don't want to take a stand with the city that 'we're fighting you,' " Pennachietti, owner of Lil Dan's Gourmet food truck, said in an interview last week. "We want to educate."

And advocate - for such things as less-restrictive parking regulations, more vending hours, and food-preparation policies that recognize the expanded capabilities of this era's gourmet serving vehicles.

By Pennachietti's estimates, there are more than 2,000 food trucks and carts serving the city's ravenous public, with 20 to 30 new ones expected to roll onto the scene by the end of the year.

"It truly is a food-truck renaissance in Philly," the Fishtown resident said. "It's the craze."

Not just here, but in a number of cities. In Los Angeles, for instance, mobile food vending has spawned an almost cultish following by the take-out-dining set. It also resulted in the creation in January 2010 of the SoCal Mobile Food Vendors Association, a nonprofit support and lobbying group of 136 fee-paying members on which PMFA is modeled. The Philadelphia group has signed up 35 members so far, at annual fees ranging from $125 to $500.

"It was really a reaction to the emerging trend of food trucks and the confusing regulatory environment they were facing on a day-to-day basis," said Matt Geller, SoCal's chief executive officer. His credentials include a law degree and eight years of running restaurants.

With California state law empowering municipalities to regulate food trucks, Geller said, "in one day a food truck could be in three different cities dealing with three different sets of regulations."

The association is battling proposed state legislation that would have prohibited food trucks from being within 1,500 feet of schools. In response to pushback from the food vendors' association and even schools, which have used food trucks at fund-raisers, the bill has been altered to allow the vehicles within 500 feet of schools. No restrictions apply in the event of a fund-raiser, Geller said.

The group also has succeeded at overturning municipal requirements that food trucks relocate every 30 minutes, arguing that such mandates had nothing to do with public safety, the stated main goal of vendor regulations.

It proves Pennachietti's point about power in numbers. "With numbers, people tend to listen," he said.

He thinks Philadelphia officials have a lot to learn when it comes to the needs of the mobile-food industry.

Topping his wish list for change is getting the city to revamp its so-called prohibited-streets list - a litany of places where food trucks and carts are forbidden. On it are such heavily traveled corridors as Broad Street, Columbus Boulevard, and Aramingo Avenue, a main artery leading to I-95 that Pennachietti considers a potential gold mine given the high volume of traffic he sees on it each morning.

He also wants to change a city ordinance that bans vending between midnight and 7 a.m. That's preventing food-truck operators from cashing in on the oft-hungry after-hours bar and nightclub crowd, Pennachietti said.

So far, he has the ear of at least one City Council member, Mark Squilla, who also happens to be Pennachietti's cousin.

"I think it's a great idea," Squilla said of the association. He hopes that bringing vendors together under one organization will ensure more consistent compliance with city regulations - whatever those rules wind up being.

Squilla has urged PMFA to suggest how the city can make it easier for food-truck operators to meet their business goals, while enabling Philadelphia to "make some money off this."

Another of PMFA's founders, Andrew Gerson, invited SoCal's Geller to Philadelphia in December to get his advice.

"It provided hope," Gerson said of Geller's counsel. "We saw a really functioning organization that was able to aid the operators, help the community, and really create that communal voice."

Gerson doesn't operate a vending truck yet, but he plans to have one soon, offering fresh pasta on city streets.

His priority for the association is getting the city to embrace "alternative eating spaces," including abandoned lots, to be served by mobile-food vendors.

That would bring better food opportunities to underserved neighborhoods and enhance the viability of those communities, Gerson said.

PMFA's organizers should keep the message positive, especially in this formative stage, SoCal's Geller said. That should include emphasizing that a thriving food-truck industry is a boon not only for operators, but for consumers looking for more eating choices and a financially strained city eager for more revenue.

Also advising PMFA is the University of Pennsylvania Law School's Entrepreneurship Legal Clinic, which has provided PMFA with free help in getting incorporated and filing for tax-exempt status. The law firm Ballard Spahr L.L.P. has agreed to fill in throughout the school's summer break.

"I think that the city needs to learn what it is to be a mobile food-truck operator," said Kimberly Wexler, one of the Penn law students working with the group and an ardent supporter of the cause. "I think Philadelphia might not realize how difficult it is for these food truckers to gain access to locations."

Said Mary Gay Scanlon, pro bono counsel at Ballard Spahr: "I've seen the food-truck culture in L.A., and it's fabulous. To have a vibrant food-truck culture will be a nice thing for Philly."

Contact Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466 or dmastrull@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @mastrud.

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