Food trucks move from the streets to the parties with catering services

Dan Pennachietti: "People want that truck experience." KATE McCANN / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Dan Pennachietti: "People want that truck experience." KATE McCANN / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Posted: May 11, 2012

IN THE FOOD business, there’s not much that’s trendier than a food truck. Maybe gluten-free pastry. Or garlic scapes. Or waiters with mustaches. That’s about it.

Breakfast through dinner, mobile culinary units have in recent years multiplied nationwide. In our town, the campuses of Temple, Drexel and Penn have long been home to falafel, kielbasa and soul-food vendors. Today, they also host trucks and carts serving gourmet grilled cheeses, breakfast tacos, pork bulgogi and vegan banh mi. Last year, LOVE Park became a temporary residence to a mess of mostly newbie trucks proffering wood-grilled pizza, custom burgers, Trinidadian doubles, single-origin coffee, red velvet cupcakes and “Iron Chef”-approved tacos.

Deep in South Philly, Lincoln Financial Field hopped on the chuck wagon when it invited a few to Headhouse Plaza during last season’s home games. And, if you’ve tried to get a milk-and-honey macaroon or chicken-wing platter at one of the city’s rotating Night Markets, which close off streets so wheel-bearing eateries can park and vend after dark, then you know something’s up with these trucks. Philly’s mobile meals scene is so notable, it’s the topic of a New York Times travel piece this Sunday.

So, it should come as no surprise that they’re popping up in other places, too. Like weddings. And corporate picnics. Community fundraisers. Sweet 16s. Hair-salon openings. Roller derbies.

The food truck is the new party bus.

“There’s crazy potential [in Philadelphia] to do unique events,” said Amy Rivera, who helps organize events for the newly formed nonprofit trade group the Philadelphia Mobile Food Association. Makes sense. Food trucks can drive almost anywhere, don’t take up much space — and almost always draw a crowd of curious eaters.

“People want that truck experience. They’ve seen [the Food Network’s] ‘Great Food Truck Race’ and are all over it,” said Dan Pennachietti, owner of Lil’ Dan’s, a popular Monday-and-Friday vendor of chicken-cutlet and roast-pork sandwiches at LOVE Park. His truck recently fed a crowd of Flyers fans who’d gathered at a Pennachietti family friend’s Fishtown home to watch the team beat the New Jersey Devils in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Springtime sports playoffs are only the beginning. As the weather’s (sort of) getting warmer, “our calendar’s filling up,” said Peter Angevine, one of the owners of Kensington-based Little Baby’s Ice Cream, which peddles its wares, including customer-favorite flavor Earl Grey Sriracha, from a trio of tricked-out tricycles. He has a full slate of June weddings and did an April event for 1,500 at Penn.

“? ’Tis the season,” agreed Rivera.

Consumer-wise, the trend makes even more sense. Not only are trucks and carts convenient, but they also come relatively cheap. Jonah Fliegelman, co-owner of less-than-a-year-old Pitruco Pizza, said that his truck can show up for as little as $15 per person and as few as 30 people. That’s way below what his caterer plans to charge for Fliegelman’s own upcoming wedding.

“I’m paying $75 a head,” griped the groom-to-be, adding, “Caterers in general aren’t really producing a very unique or high-quality product, especially for the prices that they charge. For $75 a person, you could go to the best restaurant in Philadelphia and have the best meal.”

Of course, when you hire a food truck, you’re not getting fine china, sterling silver or suit-and-tie servers. Although most cruising kitchens hire extra help to deliver slices, burgers or tacos into a building, few offer the kind of formality you’d expect from a top-notch caterer.

“We’ve never had to dress up for an event,” said Fliegelman, “It seems that the people that are attracted to our food are a little more laid-back.”

Little Baby’s Angevine agreed. “If people want us to show up at their wedding with some goofy tricycle, we imagine that they’re pretty loose,” he said.

Still, Lil’ Dan’s does have a black-and-white dress code for his staff, including chef’s jackets for his cooks. But, then again, Lil’ Dan’s also has a much more expansive menu for such events – not just his famous sandwiches, but also savory garlic potatoes, hearty stuffed ziti, classic chicken Marsala and the like.

Some vendors offer their complete menus for parties. Many create custom items according to, say, a bride’s craving for kumquat poppy-seed ice cream, or a company president’s affinity for butternut-squash pizza. But most truck owners restrict their selections to get everyone fed.

Explained Gretchen Fantini, of Sweet Box cupcake truck: “I try to limit [my kinds of cupcakes] to a certain number, because when someone gets to the truck and they see six flavors, they want all six.” (The most popular? Red velvet, followed by chocolate peanut butter, chocolate ganache, then strawberries and champagne.)

Jon Adams, co-owner of LOVE Park’s Rival Bros. Coffee, noted a similar problem. “Some guy [in line] is like, ‘I’m gonna get a mocha,’ and the next guy [in line] is like, ‘What’s a mocha?’ ‘Oh, it’s a latte with chocolate,’ [says the first guy, so the second guy says,] ‘I’ll have one of those, too.’ It’s like whisper down the lane.” Mochas take longer to make.

But that’s not a food truck’s only party-related dilemma. Another is scheduling. They might be mobile, but vendors can be in only one place at a time. They say that their primary obligation is to the regular patrons who support their regular spots. Said Adams: “As long as [an event] doesn’t conflict with our normal daily operation, we’ll usually be willing to do it.”

And even if they’re free, they still need to get paid enough. Few vendors wanted to go on the record with rates, but most admitted that they’d need to get paid at least $500 to do a gig.

The cost of ingredients, electric, employees — and gas, which, obviously, is pricier in a food-filled truck — all add to a vendor’s bottom line, said Thomas Bacon, of iconic West Philly soul-food operations Gigi’s and Big R. As many festivals and parties as any of these trendy vendors work, they still consider walk-ups to be bread-and-butter.

After all, said Bacon, “the food we serve is lunch and dinner. People have lunch and dinner seven days a week.”

Email Lauren McCutcheon at mccutch@phillynews.com.

How to get a food truck to show up

Book: Walk up before or after the lunch rush and … ask. Easy. Or call/email/tweet/Facebook a message. Newer trucks tend to be super social-networkers.

Schedule: Pick a time and date that coincide with the truck’s time off.

Pay: A few hundred bucks for a few hours. Less for premade goods like cupcakes. More for fancy, made-to-order fare.

Park:… it in your driveway, at your block party, on your lawn

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