Turmoil as Temple food trucks forced to vacate overnight

It’s a policy that’s been in place at least three years — but rarely enforced.

Temple University's main campus is home to 50 food trucks

Temple University's main campus is home to 50 food trucks

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY
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Update 6:10 p.m.: Temple’s food trucks might not have to move overnight after all.

Starting next month, Temple’s on-campus food trucks will be forced to move daily, vacating their regular spots at night and returning to them the next morning.

It’s a major change in how the 50 mobile kitchens operate, one some proprietors said might put them out of business altogether. The news came via a letter from Temple last week, which warned that if the rules are not followed, operators could be slapped with fines from the city, or get towed.

Storing the trucks offsite has technically been required since at least 2015, but has been rarely — if ever — enforced.

Moving the wheeled eateries isn’t as easy as it might look; operators say it can be costly, time-consuming and sometimes dangerous. Cloud Coffee truck co-owner Matthew Craig told Billy Penn he can’t afford to relocate his truck every night. He and his business partner are planning to close shop permanently.

“It’s so unsustainable,” Craig said. “I wouldn’t be able to make enough in sales every day to justify the time it takes to move the thing.”

The college community has rallied behind the mobile vendors, with a Change.org petition that asks the city to let the trucks stay put.

A month to make the change

Craig said he and his truck-neighbors were first handed the six-page letter in person on April 17. If folks didn’t move their vehicles starting on April 29, the letter read, they’d start racking up violations — leaving them less than two weeks to figure out how to adopt the new procedure.

“It is a blow,” said Lilly Dzemaili, who’s owned the Richie’s Lunch Box truck with her husband for nearly 40 years. “We’re willing to work with the city of Philadelphia, with Temple, with Licenses and Inspections, but they gave us a letter with such short notice.”

Dzemaili will get some more time. After outcry from vendors, Temple officials applied for an extension from the city, and now vendors have until May 20 to find a solution.

“Temple University maintains strong, working relationships with the nearly four dozen independent food vendors on campus,” said spokesperson Christopher Vito. “The food trucks are a staple of the Temple experience.”

Enforcing a 3-year-old rule

What’s the impetus behind the change? The city has decided to start actually enforcing Bill No. 150498, which was passed in 2015. Department of Licenses and Inspections spokesperson Karen Guss attributes the three-year delay to staffing shortages. The department has just four food vending inspectors, she said.

“We’ve been letting everyone know that, guys, this is still the law, whether or not we’re issuing tickets,” Guss said. “We’re not looking to sandbag anyone. This is a heads up.”

Harris Eckstut, a board member at the Philadelphia Mobile Food Association, speculated that someone probably complained about the trucks sitting dormant overnight, pushing the city to act.

Last month, mobile vending company Industrial Food Truck did post on Facebook about the situation, suggesting that since those trucks sit still for so long, they’re getting dirty. Industrial, which rents overnight space to mobile vendors, did not return requests for comment.

The PMFA hosted a meeting for Temple food trucks on Monday, organizing a discussion about the letter and brainstorming a path forward.

“We should all be doing a better job,” Eckstut said. “The food’s already good, so let’s get the area looking good, the trash taken care of and the trucks up to code.”

What’s the big deal about moving, anyway?

Temple’s trucks are packed densely into assigned spots, which are tough to enter and exit unless the whole row moves at the same time. And though they have wheels, some trucks, like Cloud, aren’t actually built to travel all that much.

“It’s like a mobile home, more or less,” Craig said. “It’s designed to be more of an espresso drive-thru.”

Then, there’s the storage. Food trucks are usually required to be parked overnight in a designated commissary, which can cost hundreds of dollars every month to rent out.

If someone steals their spot overnight, owners have to call a tow company in the morning — and risk losing potential business hours. Plus, navigating busy city streets every morning and night is harder in a huge food truck, and it takes a lot longer.

Dzemaili, of Richie’s Lunch Box, insists that Temple’s streets simply don’t have the infrastructure to support all this movement. “It’s really hazardous to bring the trucks in the morning,” she said. “It’s not safe at all. I don’t know how they don’t see that.”

In the past few years, the city has increasingly regulated the food truck presence around Temple, thanks in large part to legislation introduced by Council President Darrell Clarke — in whose district the university sits.

He sponsored the 2015 bill that has gone unenforced. Among other regulations, it created a vending district, setting some rules for mobile eateries in the area. Other neighborhoods have similar designations with their own regulations, including University City, Germantown, North Front Street and Oregon Avenue.

North Philly’s district set a hard cap on the number of trucks around Temple, only allowing 50 at a time. It assigned each vendor a spot, packing them all into roughly four specific blocks.

And at the time, Temple officials toyed with creating permanent space for the trucks — but ultimately decided against it.

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