Spot Burgers vending outside Drexel

Spot Burgers vending outside Drexel

How 3,100 angry Philly social media users could change a bill that might ‘kill the culture of food trucks’

Anyone with access to the internet can make an online petition on Change.org, and they can make it about anything.

Think Leonardo DiCaprio deserves to finally win an Oscar? Petition. Feel strongly that Whataburger should change the name of its “Spicy Ketchup” to “Spicy Fancy Ketchup”? Add your name.  Upset because Starbucks’ pumpkin spice latte isn’t vegan? Sign here. There’s even a petition to stop posting stupid petitions.

But sometimes, Change.org works. At least, it sure looks effective in the case of Drexel vs. food trucks.

Before Drexel engineering major Om Mahida created a Change.org petition to “save the food trucks” on August 10, no one was talking about pending legislation to establish a highly-regulated Drexel University District for street vendors.

The food truckers knew about it, even though neither Drexel or City Council had reached out to them for comment or input. When Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell introduced the bill back on June 18, the Philadelphia Mobile Food Association — which pays attention to legislation that might affect members as part of its core mission — immediately took notice.

But despite repeated attempts, PMFA president and Cow and the Curd owner Rob Mitchell had not met with Blackwell’s office or with Drexel’s administration, he told Billy Penn on August 13, nearly two months after the ordinance was first brought to council floor.

PMFA president Rob Mitchell tried hard to engage stakeholders, but until the online petition, met with little success

PMFA president Rob Mitchell tried hard to engage stakeholders, but until the online petition, met with little success

Danya Henninger

“No one has gotten back to us,” confirmed active PMFA member and Spot Burgers owner Josh Kim that same day. “We’re afraid it will end up with a lot of unintended consequences.”

Enter social media.

Mahida’s petition started to really blow up. Kim urged his large followings on Facebook and Twitter to sign and share, and it worked; to date, the petition has garnered more than 3,100 signatures. The ensuing rumble — “Drexel wants to shut down food trucks!” — caught the attention of the news media. Foobooz wrote a post on the situation, and so did the Philadelphia Business Journal. Drexel administration, after being pressed by Billy Penn for a response, even put up a post of its own on the DrexelNOW blog.

And then, all of a sudden, Mitchell got his meeting.

On August 18, Drexel senior vice president Brian Keech and business and city affairs director Dimitrious Boufidis, both members of Drexel’s Office of Government and Community Relations, traveled to the Cow and the Curd’s Fishtown office for a 1.5-hour, face-to-face discussion.

According to Mitchell, progress was made.

“There’s a strong commonality of interest here,” he told Billy Penn after the meeting. “We both want to see quality trucks on Drexel’s campus.”

“They’re open to negotiating aspects of the bill,” Mitchell continued, noting that this was just the beginning of what he understands will be ongoing discussions, although he has not yet heard from Councilwoman Blackwell’s office. (City Council is currently on summer recess and Blackwell’s office did not respond to Billy Penn’s request for comment.)

Mac Mart Truck and other colorfully-decorated trucks often vend from parking spaces near the Drexel campus

Mac Mart Truck and other colorfully-decorated trucks often vend from parking spaces near the Drexel campus

Danya Henninger

So, what was wrong with the bill to begin with?

To food truck owners, perhaps most worrisome was a requirement that would assign each of 25 vendors to a specific location, and force them to stay there, day in and day out. That would be a huge change from the current situation at Drexel, which is essentially “first come, first serve”: Whoever shows up first at a choice vending spot gets to keep it for the day.

This free market competition encourages trucks to be creative, with both their cuisine and their outward appearance, according to Spot Burgers’ Kim.

“This bill, should it pass, will KILL the culture of food trucks,” Kim wrote on Facebook.

A guaranteed static location “creates a lazy environment, and the quality of the food and appearance degrade,” Kim told Billy Penn, citing the truck row along Spruce Street near Penn as proof of his claim. There, the specific location for specific vendor rule is already in effect, and has been since a University City District for street vendors was established all the way back in 1998. Seniority rules make waiting for a vending location a multi-year endeavor.

So instead, entrepreneurs looking to make a splash with new food trucks went to Drexel. That freedom and new blood is what led to the area — especially the corner of 33rd and Arch — being referred to as the “food truck mecca.”

“Trucks down at Penn are not as good,” said Ikeem Wilson as he stood in line at Mac Mart Truck on a recent Wednesday afternoon. He’s not a student, but does work at a University City nonprofit and relies on the mobile vendors for daily lunch, and sometimes dinner. “You come up here [to Drexel] if you want the gourmet stuff.”

“The trucks up here are colorful,” said an 18-year veteran of the Philadelphia Police who was waiting in line for his burger from Spot. “I think people come to them because of quality. It’s not your average roach coach, unlike most of what you see along Spruce Street.”

Taco Mondo and Undrgrnd Donuts were two of the 'gourmet' trucks that get their start near Drexel

Taco Mondo and Undrgrnd Donuts were two of the 'gourmet' trucks that get their start near Drexel

Danya Henninger

Under the new ordinance as it stands, it’s unlikely many of these “gourmet” trucks would continue to vend at Drexel.

“If it does happen, I’m never going to be here, I’ll just go elsewhere,” said Mac Mart Truck owner Marti Lieberman, who recently announced plans to open a brick-and-mortar store (the address has not yet been released). “I’m not going to pay to be here.”

Liberman was referring to the $2,750 annual fee trucks in the new Drexel University District would be required to pay for their static spot. A fee like this is standard in street vendor districts around the city, and is ostensibly there to cover the loss from potential parking meter revenue.

However, many vendors feel the fee is unnecessary, since they do already feed the meter when they’re parked next to one. One food cart owner, who asked to remain anonymous, compared the fee to “paid protection, like they had in the 1920s in Chicago.”

“My expenses for parking were over $4,000 last year,” Kim pointed out.

His Spot Burgers cart is due to stop vending out on 33rd and Arch soon, anyway. A restaurant was always Kim’s endgame, he explained, but his forthcoming storefront in Brewerytown, due to open this fall, is coming about 6 years earlier than he originally figured on. His original business plan for Spot was to open several different carts, each painted a different color and each focusing on a different food.

“Spot Fresh would have been green, offering vegetarian food. Spot Fish was going to be light blue. But when I saw the culture begin to get roadblocked by all these little bits of legislation, I knew that investing in all these mobile carts wouldn’t work,” he said.

Kim sees Philadelphia in general as being too restrictive toward street vendors. “Soon, this city won’t have a vibrant food truck culture anymore. You’re going to see all the vendors catering to suburban office parks, instead.”

But PMFA president Mitchell has a slightly different take. He noted that in New York City, for example, regulations are even more stringent — “If your badge is tucked into your sweater, you get a fine.” He’s encouraged by his recent meetings with Drexel, and looks forward to getting back on Councilwoman Blackwell’s radar when Council reconvenes.

The pending legislation — known as Bill No. 150600 — is likely to pass eventually, he admits. But now that councilmembers know their constituents are paying attention, and Drexel knows its students are up in arms, Mitchell is betting he’ll be able to get some of the wording changed for the better.

“We’re going to try to move forward together and see how we can make this workable and sustainable, make Drexel an environment where trucks can still have freedom. I think the final law will not be as draconian as the initial bill suggested.”

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