Food truck to brick-and-mortar: 4 Philly success stories

Catching up with the folks behind Mike’s BBQ, Mom-Mom’s, Revolution Taco and Poi Dog.

Pork belly taco and empanada from Street Food Philly — whose owners now operate Revolution Taco

Pork belly taco and empanada from Street Food Philly — whose owners now operate Revolution Taco

Danya Henninger
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The food truck scene in Philadelphia has grown into one of the best aspects of the city. It’s become so successful, in fact, that lots of vendors have made the leap and opened storefronts.

Differences between a mobile food operation and a brick-and-mortar spot are many, so making the transition can be tough. And the latter isn’t always easier — especially if you’re busier than expected, or are still running a catering business on the side. But it’s still rewarding, say the people who’ve done it, as long as you’re willing to put in the work.

We caught up with the entrepreneurs behind four of Philly’s successful truck-to-restaurant translations, to hear more about their path from transience to permanent fixture in the city’s food landscape.

Mike’s BBQ

1703 S. 11th St.

Have ya’ll tried that brisket cheesesteak yet? Michael Strauss has been getting props for his upgrade of the city’s signature sandwich.

Strauss is one of the partners behind South Philly tavern Taproom on 19th, but the cheesesteak comes from Mike’s BBQ, his latest venture. The smokey brand started on wheels, but now has a permanent home just off East Passyunk. Which doesn’t make running it any easier, Strauss let on.

“I probably should’ve known better,” he told Billy Penn. “I literally thought when I opened this place…I would smoke some meat and serve like 20 people a day like four or five days a week; just very low key.”

Instead, Mike’s BBQ has become a distinctly high-key destination, with sellouts happening on the regular.

It was the time put in as a mobile operation that allowed Straus to cultivate a following and develop his BBQ style, he said. Pop-ups at places like Garage North and South were well attended, which led to an investment in an 84-inch “ Lang Smoker” from Atlanta, Georgia. With that in his arsenal, Strauss hit up every festival that would embrace him.

The grueling schedule of a truck operator began to take its toll.

“If I was doing an event on Saturday when I was mobile I would have to start prepping on Wednesday — it was almost like a 36 hour process,” he remembered.

So he found a spot, and opened Mike’s BBQ at the beginning of the year. He still works up to 75 hours a week at the new space, but he’s happy with his success — which he credits in part to his great staff.

To other food truckers looking to make the leap, he offers this advice: “No matter how hard you think you’re going to have to work, you’re going to have to work that much harder.”

Mom-Mom’s Kitchen

2551 Orthodox St.

Who doesn’t love pierogis? The duo behind Mom-Mom’s has been treating Philly to dozens of varieties of the Polish dumpling for years as a mobile operation, and recently channeled their success into a storefront in the Northeast’s Bridesburg section.
Mom-Mom’s began when cofounders Kaitlin Wines and Ryan Elmore decided they wanted to move beyond bartending. They saved their money and purchased a truck — and it quickly became a huge hit. Why? Possibly because great pierogies on-the-go are not easy to accomplish.

“It’s such a labor intensive product,” Kaitlin explained. “A lot of trucks can just rip open a bag and dump it into the fryer or something, you know? Ours takes hours on end all the time; constantly prepping.”

The ebb and flow of preparation is the biggest change with a permanent location, Wines said.

“At the restaurant now we are prepping every day and selling food every day,” she explained, as opposed to rushing to prepare huge quantities before one-off food truck events.

But the truck isn’t going away. Come spring, Mom-Mom’s will be operating both the mobile and the brick-and-mortar locations — which will actually make food-trucking easier, Wines noted, since they’ll always have product available. It’ll still take a lot of effort to pull everything off, she said: “It’s just going to be crazy.”

Opening a permanent place was always a goal for Wines and Elmore, and they recommend it to others — as long as it’s still enjoyable.

“If you enjoy doing what you’re doing, keep at it,” Wines offered. “You can still access goals without following the traditional path of having a typical job..,. If you’re going to do what you like, the money will come.”

Revolution Taco

2015 Walnut St.

Before they opened Revolution Taco in Rittenhouse two years ago, owners Carolyn Nguyen and Michael Sultan were key players in Philly’s food truck explosion. They ran several different mobile operations, including Street Food Philly, Taco Mondo and Say Cheese — and had thoughts of expanding nationally.

“When we first sat down to talk about the food trucks, we wanted to open multiple trucks in different cities,” Nguyen told Billy Penn. “I guess that was a grand dream you know?”

But then regulations got in the way. “It was difficult to execute; there’s different laws and policies in different cities,” she explained. “There’s just a lot of politics behind it.”

Instead, they decided to focus on catering and launching a brick-and-mortar shop. One twist came when they were naming their storefront — in the form of a cease and desist letter. A company in California already had the brand “Taco Mondo” and was willing to fight over it.

Then and there, the name “Revolution Taco” was born. (Whether you consider it revolutionary or not, don’t miss the tacos with fried curried cauliflower or confit duck.)

Does Nguyen consider the food truck-to-restaurant route worthwhile? Yes, with a word of warning.

“I don’t think we’d have it any other way,” she said, but “whether it’s the brick and mortar or whether it’s the food truck I want people to know there’s a lot of work involved. Some people open it thinking its easy money but it’s not. You have to be passionate about what you’re doing. You have to be passionate about the food, the customers, and bringing the experience to them.

“You can’t open a food truck because it’s trendy, you know?”

Poi Dog Philly

100.5 S. 21st St.

Neither Kiki Aranita or Chris Vacca, the pair of academics-turned-chefs who run Poi Dog, never wanted to open a restaurant. Then again, they never even meant to launch a food truck.

“It is not something either of us wanted to do,” Aranita explained.

But the two had worked in other trucks when they were at grad school together, and decided to do it as a lark. Before they realized it, their Hawaiian-inspired cart had become one of the best-loved trucks in the city.

Over four years, Poi Dog’s mobile operation gained momentum to the point where the duo had to turn away business and events. And so a storefront seemed like the right thing to do. It launched in Rittenhouse last fall, and has been a smashing success — with its own set of issues.

“There are naturally going to be new challenges whenever one increases the scale of operations in a small business,” Vacca said. “New restaurant owners [must] confront and effectively manage many more concerns than they may have been accustomed to previously.”

As for whether other mobile vendors should attempt to make the leap, Vacca equivocates.

“It honestly depends on the business and the entrepreneurs themselves,” he offered. Some businesses would benefit from expanding operations and establishing a regular, permanent presence in the city, while others are better suited to mobile vending.”