Food trucks would be banned from a two-block stretch of Girard Avenue in Fishtown under a new bill being considered by City Council, and the potential change has sparked a lot of debate.
It would affect a small area, but a busy one: the intersection of Frankford and Girard, home to one of Philly’s most dense concentrations of restaurants and bars.
Supporters of the ban, including civic leaders and some nearby restaurant proprietors, cite noise, trash, and traffic-related issues. Opponents, including food truck vendors and some neighborhood residents and bar-goers, say it would diminish one of the city’s best options for late-night eats.
“There’s a lot of people who come to Fishtown just for the food trucks,” said Ahmed Wali, a vendor who spoke at an Oct. 17 hearing on the proposed ordinance, which was introduced in late September by District 1 Councilmember Mark Squilla.
The bill would prohibit all street vending on both sides of Girard Avenue from Leopard Street (a block west of Frankford) to Shackamaxon Street (a block east).
“The neighborhood raised concerns about the constant idling of the trucks, the overflow of trash, and crowds walking through our neighborhoods until the early morning hours,” Marc Collazzo, executive director of local business association Fishtown District, said at the October hearing.
Food trucks have been setting up around Frankford and Girard for at least a dozen years, according to vendors, who have previously clashed with officials over closing time.
Philadelphia law prohibits vending on any street between midnight and 7 a.m., but the city has not always strictly enforced the rule. A 2014 cover story in the Philadelphia City Paper was titled “2 A.M. Eats: Fishtown Food Trucks,” and there was an uproar in 2016 when inspectors from the Dept. of Licenses and Inspections began shutting down trucks at the intersection for vending too late into the night.
Over the past two years, Collazzo said, Fishtown District worked with local law enforcement and L&I to enforce the midnight curfew by handing out warnings and fines, with little effect.
In September, he got overtime approved for city inspectors and dispatched the neighborhood safety patrol to hand-deliver notices of upcoming inspections to the trucks. The following weekend, the inspectors arrived and issued citations.
On top of violations for operating after hours, “almost all were also issued tickets for no license, either food or vending or both or expired licenses,” an L&I spokesperson told Billy Penn.
“I was told that the vendors, to a person, ‘laughed’ and kept working,” Collazzo said at the hearing.
Much needed late-night option, or nuisance to established businesses?
Some neighborhood residents have nicknamed the intersection the “Bromuda Triangle”.
“There’s a triangulation of bars at Frankford and Girard that draw ‘bros’,” Fishtown resident Diana Westerfer explained on social media. “Frankford Hall and Garage being the most egregiously bro-y.”
Those and other nearby bars, which serve alcohol until 2 a.m., often close their kitchens hours earlier. Food truck vendors, who rely on areas that consistently attract large numbers of customers, say they’re providing a service by offering easy-access meals to tipsy bar-goers.
“A lot of the patrons that come after 12 o’clock be trying to sober up to get home,” street vendor Earl Harris said at the hearing. “We out there providing a service to the community as well, and cleaning up our trash.”
Collazzo, of Fishtown District, submitted a list of nearby “quick-bite” eateries with his testimony. But of the 31 restaurants listed, only two — McDonald’s and Humpty Dumplings — are open past 1 a.m.
The booming late-night vending scene at Frankford and Girard could be credited to chef Verna Swerdlow and her food truck Vernalicious, which operated from 2011 to 2016.
“I am definitely the OG who started that late-night trend,” Swerdlow told Billy Penn.
Back then, her truck opened at around 9:30 p.m. and served neighborhood residents, local bar patrons, and hospitality/service workers coming off a late shift, she said. She recalled the close relationships vendors had with other restaurant owners, ordering food from one another, and the cordial atmosphere. “The environment was festive, warm, inclusive … we fed everybody. It was fun,” she said.
Already a hot spot a decade ago, the intersection has only grown in popularity. Swerdlow firmly believes street vendors have been part of that growth, with the variety in dining experiences drawing people back to the district.
“More can beget more. Fishtown is growing by leaps and bounds for that very reason,” Swerdlow said. “You’ve got that diversity.”
Collazzo disagrees. “These illegally operating food vendors hurt the eateries … who have invested their time, talent, and treasure in committing to the Fishtown/Kensington communities by opening a ‘brick and mortar’ business here,” he testified.
It’s his duty, he said, to defend and foster the success of restaurants like Joe’s Steaks and Johnny Brenda’s, especially after the financial impact of the pandemic.
Joe’s Steaks owner Joe Groh also testified in favor of the ban. “I’ve got a front-row view of what goes on. It’s a 24/7 operation,” Groh said. “When they’re done at night, they put a dump truck there… It’s a two-hour parking zone they block, no one can park there.”
Some on social media have speculated about the timing of the ban proposal, noting that the intersection is surrounded by construction of various developments, including a planned boutique hotel and luxury apartments.
The legislation is currently being held by Squilla until after the local neighborhood association, or RCO, holds a meeting on the proposal and issues their opinion, according to Squilla’s office. The bill could potentially be put to a full Council vote as soon as next Thursday, Nov. 16.