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Food Truck 101: How to start your kitchen on wheels in Philadelphia

You can grill up a mean jalapeño bacon cheeseburger. Your friends can’t stop raving about your mango corn salsa.  And your savory short rib puff pastries? To die for.

So, you flirt with the idea of opening up a food truck. After all, food trucks are all the rage – just take a peek at the numbers. The industry, according to market research firm IBIS, really only began to boom in 2008. As of last year, the mobile food sector is expected to reach $2.7 billion by 2017. That’s quadruple what it was in 2012. Father, son, holy growth.

If you’re serious about this food truck idea, the first order of business is getting in touch with Philly Mobile Food Association co-founder Dan Pennachietti (of Lil’ Dan’s fame). Pennachietti is something of a Philly food truck legend. The man has had a hand in getting some of your favorite trucks their start (Taco Mondo, Cow & the Curd and Street Food Philly, to name a few).

You have a few options. You can rent your truck, buy a used one, or even have it custom-built. Pennachietti says if you’re serious and have your finances straight, you can get your truck out on the street faster than you might think. “If you buy a used truck, you can get it inspected, get your paperwork all done and get out there in 30 days, looking good and ready to roll.”

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Hold your horses. It ain’t that easy. According to Say Cheese owner Alan Krawitz, the strenuous parts of the process are identifying the appropriate vehicle for your truck’s menu and finding someone to appropriately outfit your ride at a reasonable price. Startup costs are relatively low compared to a brick-and-mortar business. You can actually buy a used truck right now for $30-$75k (trailers, as you may have guessed, are much cheaper).

Now, the paperwork. Get ready to organize a start-up/operating budget; fill out a commissary application, a mobile food vending application, a fee assessment and a preliminary sanitation worksheet; find quality business/liability/fire/auto insurance; take a food safety course for certification; get your truck inspected; apply for a commercial activity license, a non-permanent retail food license, a vendor motor vehicle license – er, you get the gist.

According to Pitruco Pizza owner Jonah Fliegelman, the aforementioned tedium is a piece of cake. “I know people talk about how the city makes it difficult, but at the end of the day it’s not that hard,” he explains. “You should be able to navigate that.” Fliegelman started operating out of a trailer in October 2011 (with some help from Pennachietti), six months after committing to the idea of opening a mobile pizza shop. Nowadays, Fliegelman runs his business out of a custom truck complete with a brick oven stove. Mmmm, fresh hot ‘za.

Speaking of temperature, you’ll have to take the cold season into account, especially if you’re operating around college campuses. “It’s taken me several years to develop a solid strategy,” says Krawitz. Say Cheese is a favorite around Drexel and Penn, but what does the truck do during winter breaks? Catering! Sometimes he’s got dates as far as a year in advance. “We’ve developed catering relationships and corporate relationships to make the necessary revenue through the winter months.”

That’s the best strategy, according to Pennachietti. “After November, it gets sketchy,” he says. “You’ll have to pick up locations in other areas so people are seeing you.” Pennachietti claims you can make a living solely working the college campus scene. He did just that at Penn with Lil’ Dan’s by getting on the university’s catering list and meal plan. “Faculty is there year round, they’re bringing in alumni, they’re bringing in college trips – you just have to dedicate all your time to that college. It’s a different animal.”

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Fliegelman agrees. “We tough it out throughout the breaks,” he says. Pitruco Pizza has been able to build up enough of a following that they can sustain through winter lulls on professors alone. The best way to build up that following? You guessed it – Twitter. In fact, Some local food trucks have more Twitter followers than our city officials. Really, it’s the most effective method for clueing your customers in to your whereabouts.

But before you go investing your life’s savings into this culinary passion project, take a moment to heed a few words of warning from our food truck sages:

“If you want to be your own boss and work when you want, that’s not the food truck industry. If you miss a day, they don’t miss you. It hurts.” – Dan Pennachietti

“If you step into the culinary scene, which you’re doing with a food truck, you join the ranks of some really, really talented chefs. You have to deliver.” – Alan Krawitz

“Probably don’t do it.” – Jonah Fliegelman

Now you know. See you (and your puff pastries) in 30 days.

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