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Bye, Spot Burger: Food trucks booted from The Porch at 30th Street

Photo by R. Kennedy for Visit Philadelphia

Eating an al fresco Spot Burger with an expansive view of the Philadelphia skyline was one of the best lunch experiences in the city. Unfortunately, it’s no longer an option.

Last week, the University City District announced via Twitter that food service at The Porch at 30th Street would be temporarily “suspended” as of May 1. But Billy Penn has learned that none of the food trucks that usually vend there will be returning. No more Taco Mondo, no more Pitruco Pizza. No more Vernalicious, no more Say Cheese. These and other Philly-favorite mobile street vendors have essentially been kicked out.

The changes are part of the rollout of “Porch 2.0,” according to UCD marketing and communications director Lori Brennan. The next incarnation of the space next to 30th Street Station will have “a food component,” but Brennan is keeping details under wraps until later this week (Update: Philly.com has details on the permanent food outlet, Rotisserie at the Porch, which Billy Penn has learned is aiming for a launch later this month). But it will not be any of the trucks who helped build the plaza’s reputation as a lunchtime mecca. “I’m disappointed,” says Josh Kim, proprietor of Spot Gourmet Burgers.

His tiny yellow cart was slated to set up at The Porch every Thursday through the end of July, and each day would have included at least 2.5 hours of long lines and solid sales. Another truck operator estimated he could miss out on close to $25,000 in revenue because of the abrupt change. The switch was so quick and unceremonious that even Visit Philly, the city’s tourism arm and relentless promoter, was for days unaware of the coming transition.

Street vendors were advised of the possibility of the reprogramming in early April, although they weren’t initially told what date their Porch timeslots would expire. At the beginning of the season, the UCD had asked popular food trucks to agree to a regular schedule this year, and then promoted it heavily and posted it on the district website. However, no contract with those truck operators was ever signed, so all the mobile chefs could do when they heard of the shutdown was throw up their hands.

Why would the UCD toss out some of the most beloved draws to the plaza? Billy Penn hears that the new restaurant group coming in has agreed to invest a significant amount of money into the plaza’s infrastructure, and may even have entered into an agreement to funnel a portion of concession revenue back to the UCD.

Is this all a bad thing? For hungry lunchers, not necessarily. If the quality of food from the new concession is the same as from the independent mobile vendors, they might not care about the change at all. However, that’s no easy feat. “You can’t just throw a truck out there and expect it to automatically be popular,” says one operator. Many of Philly’s street food favorites have cult followings, customers who track the trucks via social media.

Samboni Boys

Then there’s the impact on the mobile vendors themselves. There aren’t many areas where food trucks are allowed to set up, and the most lucrative of them are scheduled out far in advance. Some former Porch vendors say they wish the UCD had opened up bidding on whatever’s coming to the space so they had a chance to get involved. And what’s coming may include a permanent concession structure.

For years a barricaded parking lot, the area was transformed in late 2011 into a miniature public square by the UCD with support from the William Penn Foundation. Over the first season, movable furniture was deployed in a variety of configurations and a host of outdoor programming was deployed — a beta test of what would work best for the space. A 2012 UCD report [PDF] showed The Porch’s highest occupancy was on farmers market and food truck days, and noted that “[t]he food trucks, in particular, draw customers.” Authors concluded that “[t]here is demand for continuous food presence” at the plaza.

As for what that food presence will be, we’ll have to wait and see.

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