Saturday brings the fifth annual Philly Vendy Awards to the JFK Bridge, when 15 local food trucks convene on the arch that connects Center City to 30th Street Station. The street food throwdown is a fundraiser for The Food Trust and the Philadelphia Mobile Food Association, but it’s also a chance to taste a ton of different food in an outdoor setting ($65 tickets are available here).
It can definitely be fun to stick plastic forks into paper trays and nosh on a variety of food in the open air — especially for charity — but has the food truck trend peaked?
It was only six years ago that Drew Crockett (HubBub Coffee) and Tom McCusker (Honest Tom’s Tacos) launched their respective ventures, bringing the gourmet mobile food movement from L.A. and New York to our city. By 2010, there was enough interest in upscale street food here that The Food Trust held the first of many Night Market bazaars. In 2011, the first Philly Vendys awards went down, and in 2012, a group of truck operators formed the Philadelphia Mobile Food Association.
This February, Councilman Mark Squilla introduced legislation to update zoning and clarify where food trucks can legally vend. Among other things, the bill would create a separate definition for mobile food purveyors, which are currently lumped under “street vendors” — a classification that includes folks who set up tables along sidewalks to peddle watches, scarves and the like.
There isn’t an official count of how many trucks now operate in Philly, but a public (and definitely incomplete) Twitter list includes 169 members.
The growth trend is similar across the nation. Market research firm IBIS estimates food trucks are now an $857 million industry, with an annual expansion of more than 9.3%. An August 2014 University of Michigan/Northwestern University study estimated more than 4,000 trucks operating across major U.S. cities, and that was nearly a year ago. There’s a caveat to this number, however: it was sourced via Twitter. That means it didn’t count the many operators who simply set up on busy corners and vend, relying on foot traffic instead of social media to drive customers to their window counters.
When the Vendys began in New York in 2005, they were a way for NYC’s Urban Justice Center to draw attention to the more than 10,000 street vendors operating throughout that city. Back then, most of the cart and truck operators were immigrants or people of color who didn’t have a way to fight back against legislation or policies designed (often with the input of more established business interests) to get them off the sidewalks.
But now when we think of food trucks — and the Vendys — we’re much less likely to think Halal, and more inclined to picture a giant pink vehicle proffering bacon-loaded mac ‘n’ cheese. There is a Food Network reality show about food trucks (The Great Food Truck Race). There was a Hollywood movie about food trucks (2014’s Chef, with Jon Favreau). There’s a Chipotle food truck and a Chick-fil-A food truck. A McDonald’s food truck gave away food at 2015 SXSW.
Locally, Jose Garces has operated a food truck since 2010, although the operation (originally dubbed Guapos Tacos) now only does catered events. More recently, a rotating group of independent food trucks were kicked out of The Porch at 30th Street to make way for a Michael Schulson rotisserie cart.
As big brand names and larger organizations co-opt the mobile food revolution, there’s still reason to support the little guys. Even more reason, perhaps. Sly Fox brewmaster Brian O’Reilly, one of this year’s Vendy judges, sees a similarity between that industry and craft beer.
“Food trucks and craft beer in cans have a lot in common. They both are unpretentious packages that provide tons of flavor and complexity,” he told Billy Penn. ” I think food trucks are memorable because they so often exceed people’s expectations.”
The relatively low start-up costs allow for more experimentation with cuisine than traditional restaurants, says Jonathan Deutsch, author and director of Drexel University’s Center for Hospitality and Sport Management. He’s also a Vendys judge this year.
“The past decades have seen street food in Philly go from ‘the usual’ to some of the most innovative and value-oriented food in town,” he noted, adding that it’s still an appealing avenue for prospective restaurateurs. “Increasingly, our students at Drexel’s culinary and hospitality programs are gravitating towards trucks as a fun and fast-paced work environment and an entrepreneurial opportunity with lower barriers to entry than a brick and mortar restaurant.”
Vendys judge Bryan Mayer is a sustainable foods advocate — he helped launch the butcher shop at Fishtown’s Kensington Quarters — and he noted that many mobile operators are pushing the envelope in that regard. “There are so many trucks sourcing great local, healthy, clean ingredients. Like the guys at Local 215. One of my favorites,” he said.
“Street food is an essential part of this city’s dining scene and makes exciting eats accessible to just about anyone,” said 2015 Vendys judge and Uwishunu editor Kristina Jenkins. “There’s something so satisfying and joyful about stuffing a taco in my mouth while hanging out on a sidewalk or sitting in the park. ”
Perhaps the most important question isn’t who’s running the trucks, but whether eating the food is enjoyable. The Vendys are a great place to answer that question about a huge variety of trucks in a short time frame. If you go, you’ll get a chance to eat all you want (all you can manage to stand in line for) from the trucks listed below, and also a chance to vote on your favorite.
The Mixin Bowl
Rookie of the Year
Rigatoni’s Mobile Crab Cakes
Las Olas Food Truck
Jimmies Cupcake Co.
Pound Cake Heaven
Photos by Danya Henninger