Late-night tacos from Calle Del Sabor have been a thing for more than 5 years

Updated Sept. 17

When the Calle Del Sabor food truck at the corner of Frankford and Girard was forced to close early last weekend, owner Sean Kong-Quee remained calm. Even though shutting down at midnight (instead of his usual 3 a.m.) caused his sales to drop from an average of $3,000 a night to just $900, he didn’t raise a fuss.

He complied with the officials from L&I’s Nuisance Property Unit, who showed up at the busy intersection around 11 p.m. and told the half a dozen truck owners that if they didn’t skedaddle by midnight, they risked having property confiscated and licenses revoked.

So did everyone else at the popular late-night hotspot. Threats like that, to people whose entire livelihood depends on one small truck, are not taken lightly.

But unlike some of the other vendors, Kong-Quee didn’t raise a stink on social media.

A long-standing ordinance

Even though he’s been slinging tacos late-night for more than five years now, Kong-Quee is aware that it’s not officially allowed. Vending between 12 a.m. and 7 a.m. is illegal on city property, such as sidewalks — see Sec. 9-203 (7)(i) of the Philadelphia City Code.

Instead, he waited until Monday, and then went to see Councilman Darrell Clarke, in whose district the Fishtown corner falls, to see what he could find out.

The locus was far from an insider secret. In 2014, the Philadelphia City Paper even did a cover story on the phenomenon, called “2 A.M. Eats: Fishtown Food Trucks.” What Kong-Quee doesn’t understand is why, without warning, this ordinance that’s been overlooked for years was suddenly being strictly enforced.

Neither, it appears, does anyone else.

“Even the staffers in Darrell Clarke’s office said they come to the trucks all the time after midnight,” Kong-Quee said. “They said they’d call us back, but so far we haven’t heard anything.”

A spokesperson for Clarke, who is also Council President, said the office is still working to figure out why this happened, and also noted that the district office has received “very few complaints about late-night food truck activity.”

According to L&I spokesperson Karen Guss, the NPU was sent out last Friday on request of the 26th District Police, which had received complaints about excess trash in the area.

But those complaints have been coming in for years.

Why now?

Credit: Twitter / @KingAqua05

A post on the community forum dated May 2015 reads: “Anyone else have an issue with the litter and trash left by the food trucks on the weekend?” And a 2015 feature in Fishtown local news site The Spirit details a campaign waged by a nearby pizzeria owner, who made multiple complaints to the police about “bags all up and down Girard Ave.”

Jesse Ferreira, owner of the Jaelyn’s A Lil Bit of Everything truck, remembers police officers brushing off the pizzeria owner’s grievances.

“The cops come to our trucks and eat all the time,” Ferreira said. “They would laugh at the pizza guy, say not to worry about him, that he was just upset about competition.”

Truck proprietors claim that they always bring trash receptacles and clean up after themselves. If garbage remains, Kong-Quee said, it could be from the (overwhelmingly intoxicated) customers, many of whom take food back to the nearby parking lot, and then leave trash there.

He also suggested that although past gripes were ignored, maybe the reason they were listened to was this time they came from someone or some organization with more clout.

The complaint didn’t come from one of the businesses that occupy the other three corners of the Frankford and Girard intersection.

Owners of Johnny Brenda’s and Garage both said they “love the trucks.” The general manager of Joe’s Steaks noted that although she saw an increase in late-night business after the trucks got shut down, she and her staff often got post-shift dinner from them, and had nothing to do with the stoppage.

Yet, “people were complaining to police, so police went out,” confirmed PPD Public Affairs Officer Christine O’Brien. So it came from somewhere.

The complaint did not come from the Fishtown Neighbors Association, according to Board President John Consolvo. Representatives from the Fishtown Area Business Association have not yet responded to a request for comment.

The question still remains as to why anyone would make a stink now, as opposed to anytime during the past couple of years.

“I don’t think we’re ever gonna know the answer,” said Kong-Quee.

Late-night will be down for a while

Kebabs at Jaelyn's A Lil Bit of Everything
Kebabs at Jaelyn’s A Lil Bit of Everything Credit: Facebook / Jaelyn’s

In any case, the crackdown means trucks won’t be vending past midnight for the foreseeable future.

“We’re going to stick to the rules until we hear back from City Hall,” Kong-Quee said, “but those late-night sales were my main source of income. We’re gonna have to get creative.”

He’s planning to circulate a paper petition this weekend to request a variance, which reads, in part:

License and Inspections has directed us to cease and desist serving operations after 12 am as they have received complaints from neighbors in the community complaining of excessive trash, additional traffic and noise brought about because of the presence of the food trucks. They are enforcing a long standing city ordinance which require food trucks to shutdown at midnight.

We are extremely disappointed they have taken this position, we are asking for your support in petitioning City Council for a variance of this code allowing us to continue serving you beyond the midnight deadline

There’s also an online petition set up by the owner of the Grubaholics truck. So far, it has less than 200 signatures.

As for whether the L&I inspectors will be back to check up on their cease and desist missive, that is unknown. Officials who told vendors they’d return last Saturday did not show up. And per spokesperson Guss, the enforcement unit is very small — just NPU Chief Tracy Ruffin and one to three other people — and the group makes decisions on the fly as to where to direct their limited resources.

“NPU Inspectors always go out on weekends,” Guss said. “The question is where! Tracy won’t know until later in the week what the most urgent situations are.”

Danya Henninger is a Philadelphia-based journalist who believes local news is essential for thriving communities, and that its format will continue to evolve. She spent six years overseeing both editorial...