Among big cities, Philly was somewhat late to the modern food truck boom. And in Philadelphia, the food truck trend very well may have peaked.
Those colloquially-accepted statements are borne out by newly-uncovered data, which also present a few questions of their own.
The Department of Licenses and Inspections gave Billy Penn figures showing the active number of Food Establishment, Retail Non-Permanent Location (aka “food truck”) licenses in a given year, going back a decade. The license is required to operate any kind of mobile food, so these numbers include halal carts and hot dog stands as well as trucks outfitted with Twitter handles and fancy exterior decor.
Late to the party
The era of hip mobile hotness kicked off for real in Los Angeles in 2008. That’s when Roy Choi and partners realized they could harness Twitter and use it to draw crowds to wherever their Kogi BBQ tacos were being sold. By 2009, New York had gotten deep into the game — that was the year Big Gay Ice Cream hit the scene, joining a flourishing field of bedazzled kitchens on wheels.
But in Philly, the number of mobile licenses held pretty much steady from 2006 through 2010, fluctuating from a low of 653 to a high of 771.
In 2009, the number of Philly mobile vendors wielding Twitter as a marketing tool were countable on one hand. There was Kate Carrara and her cupcake truck, Tom McCusker’s Honest Tom’s and Drew Crockett’s HubBub.
Even in 2010, the scene was easy to keep track of (Lucky Old Souls burger truck joined the fray, and Jose Garces jumped in with Guapos Tacos). Mod-style mobile vendors didn’t really begin to take off here until 2011. And boy, did it take off — in 2012, the New York Times even published a story about the Philly scene.
A trend past its peak
If you draw a curve along the Philly mobile food licenses graph, you can see the peak easily. (Data for the current year was provided to date and extrapolated to the end of the year.) After an almost continuous rise that saw numbers leap 66 percent from 2010 to 2015, things appear to be calming down.
The quantitative decline correlates with anecdotal evidence among truckers that the scene is neither as lucrative nor as “fun” as it was a few years ago.
“My feeling is, since 2014 there’s been lots of negative push back against food trucks,” says Spot Burgers’ Josh Kim. “Drexel wanting to get rid (of us). The Porch dumping the food truck lineup (in favor of a single vendor). The propane incident when a truck exploded.”
Kim, who has since opened a brick-and-mortar location in Brewerytown and now rolls out his bright yellow cart for catering gigs only, also points to a general change in the social media atmosphere.
“The vibe on social media just isn’t the same,” he says. “When I was on the street, the banter on Twitter was engaging, entertaining, fun. Now, trucks just post schedules… Boring. People use to visit me (at the cart) just to talk. There use to be this ‘virtual relationship’ on social media between the truck and patron. It’s gone.”
Like Kim, several other hot Philly food truck pioneers have also made the leap to permanent storefront, including Honest Tom’s, HubBub Coffee, Mac Mart, Rival Bros. and Revolution Taco.
“I think maybe the market got saturated,” says Revolution Taco’s Mike Sultan. “When people ask me for advice because they’re looking to get into it, I try to tell them about how hard it is out there.”
WTF happened in 2014?
Whether or not the trend has actually peaked here (check back in a couple years), looking at the graph, there’s one obvious outlier throwing the smooth curve out of whack.
According to the data, fewer food truck and cart licenses were active in 2014 than anytime since 2010, when the trend first got going. Numbers jumped back up in 2015, but what the heck happened that year?
One of Sultan’s theories has to do with commissaries. Maybe, he suggests there just weren’t enough places for all the operators that tried to slide into the game in 2013 to actually make their food, and so they dropped out for a year while trying to figure out logistics. Three years ago, when the popular Bridesburg Commissary opened, it maxed out right away, and the USA Commissary didn’t open until a year after that.
Rob Mitchell, operator of the Cow and the Curd trucks and president of the Philadelphia Mobile Food Association, agrees that maybe a lot of potential entrepreneurs put the cart before the horse.
“People got so excited about it, and just jumped in, whether it was because they always dreamed about quitting their job or saw the movie Chef and got inspired,” he says. “But a lot of them didn’t prepare a sustainable business model.”
The snap back in 2015, he suggests, could have been helped along when Councilman Mark Squilla introduced legislation to update zoning and clarify where food trucks could legally vend. Among other things, the bill created a separate definition for mobile food purveyors, which used to be lumped under “street vendors.” But things are still far from optimum.
“This isn’t an easy business,” he continues. “We really are the Rocky Balboas of the food and beverage world.”