In the early 2010s, following the 2008 financial crisis, the country went wild for food trucks. Food trucks were quite literally vehicles through which you could become your own boss, and the 2010 Food Network show The Great Food Truck Race further stoked the dreams of many budding food entrepreneurs. Opening a food truck was a novel way to prove your food concept and develop a following for your brand, at a time when encountering a street vendor was new and charming in some parts of the U.S.
In 2013, I opened my own food truck — Poi Dog Snack Shop — with my former partner, Chris Vacca. Together we served the dishes I loved from my childhood in Hawai’i, funneled through our own travels and experiences. It was brutally hard work — harder than running a restaurant, as we shouldered the brunt of prepping and serving the food, as well as putting together, then taking apart, a tiny kitchen every day, all while managing the books, doing marketing, and running a catering operation entirely on our own.
When Jon Favreau’s Chef came out in 2014, every food truck owner was subjected to a barrage of questions from the movie’s fans, such as, “Can you serve food wherever you like?” “Does Twitter always bring that many customers to you?” “Why don’t you come and serve food in the city I live in?” That same year, Philadelphia Magazine named Poi Dog the best food truck in Philadelphia. Eventually, we grew it into a restaurant in Rittenhouse, which we then closed during the pandemic.
Now I’ve reimagined Poi Dog as a retail sauce business with the same values and mission: to honestly represent the flavors of my Hawai’i background. While serving someone a Spam musubi from my truck brought them immediate joy, packing flavors into bottles and shipping them across the country has allowed me to reach a far greater audience with my food. I don’t miss the brutal schedule and physical exhaustion of food trucking, and I can’t imagine anyone else does. It truly was a wild ride, but it was one that put my food on the map. And what about my fellow food truck pioneers in Philadelphia? Where are they now?
Establishments that started off as trucks — like Mac Mart and Rival Bros. — have by now so woven themselves into the fabric of the Philadelphia food scene that it is difficult to imagine them having been once on wheels. But they both started on wheels, peddling mac and cheese and cappuccinos to Center City office workers and revelers at now-extinct Night Markets.
I caught up with a few other original Philly food truckers and found that many of them have indeed proven that food trucks were a good launchpad with low overhead for their brands and careers — but due to the long hours of wearing many hats, frequent mechanical issues, and the need to grow their businesses, they have long outgrown the life on wheels.
Marti Lieberman opened Mac Mart in 2013 as a big pink truck serving mac and cheese with two employees. Though she had a Drexel public relations and communications degree and a job at Saks Fifth Avenue, she quickly switched gears to food, as she was looking to become her own boss. “A food truck was the perfect outlet — as a restaurant or storefront was too much of an unknown to me — and there was no other mac and cheese-centric business [in Philly],” she says. “I wanted to be one of a kind.” Her sister and future husband came on board to help run the business. Three years into running the Mac Mart truck, she opened a grab-and-go storefront in Rittenhouse, which became a saving grace during the pandemic.
Their final event utilizing the food truck was in May 2017. “My sister and I were the only ones who knew how to drive and operate the truck itself so between those responsibilities, the dimming food truck enthusiasm in Philly, and our obligations at the brick-and-mortar, it became too much for our small team to manage.” Opening a storefront has allowed Lieberman to expand her menu, running build-a-bowl, gluten-free, and vegan options while rolling out constantly changing and enormously popular specials, like garlic butter lobster mac.
Daniel Tang’s Sugar Philly was one of the first new-wave food trucks on the Philly streets when he opened in 2011 with two partners. Sugar Philly came to specialize in French macarons after a couple of years of serving an array of desserts. Thinking back to 2013, Philly’s food truck heyday, Tang recalls, it was around that time that Sugar Philly hit its stride. “It was a pretty wild time. There were moments where I would be shopping at a grocery store or walking down the street and people would recognize me from something they saw on TV. They weren’t even my customers,” he says.
Tang closed Sugar Philly (which had also morphed into a storefront) last year. “It was a good time for us, to be honest. I had put in over 10 years of work, I had worked hard and proved [wrong] everyone who said I wouldn’t be successful. I ultimately needed a lifestyle change.” He describes a familiar experience of burnout: “Some events, we fed 400-plus people. It was madness — fun and tiring. Doing those same events a couple years later, the tiring part really started to overshadow the fun part,” Tang says. “Don’t get me wrong, it was a good time, but it was a lot.” Tang has recently taken a new position as chef manager at Jefferson Hospital in Cherry Hill.
Jonathan Adams and Damien Pileggi launched the Rival Bros. Coffee truck in October 2011 at LOVE Park. “We opened our truck ... to serve coffee in a mobile cafe setting as a coffee roaster. We were relying on the visibility of the food truck movement to promote us,” Adams remembers. Pileggi and Adams thought that building a truck would be more affordable than building out a cafe space. Like other roaming trucks, they were everywhere: “We were vending on North 33rd Street. We would also do daytime street events, flea markets, concerts, and a few weddings.”
Rival Bros has expanded over the years to include multiple storefronts — in Grad Hospital, Center City, and South Philly — and a robust retail coffee business. “We sold the truck because we shifted to expanding our cafes and it was too costly to maintain,” says Adams. Adams fondly recalls serving coffee to Will Smith from his truck on the set of After Earth: “He was as funny as you’d hope he’d be, but also very kind and generous to us.”
Heart Food Truck
Michael Falcone, once the chef and owner of Pottstown’s Funky Lil’ Kitchen, opened Heart Food Truck in 2014, which became a farmers market fixture. He was looking for more flexible hours than running a restaurant and with Heart, he served an “ever-changing seasonal menu using local farms and purveyors.”
Like most food truck owners, Falcone says he had long, 60-plus-hour weeks in the beginning, though he employed six staff members. Considering the current state of food trucks, “I think the food truck scene is more of a norm now and the hype of the culture isn’t the same.” Falcone closed Heart in 2018 to take his current position as the corporate executive chef of Take Flight Restaurant Group, which also owns Morgantown Coffee House, Oori, and Bloom Southern Kitchen.
Carolyn Nguyen, the chef and owner of Rittenhouse’s Revolution Taco, ran two trucks with partners back in 2013, Street Food and Taco Mondo (the genesis of Revolution Taco, which Nguyen closed in order to focus on the restaurant). “We had a variety of items on Street Food’s menu: dry-aged burgers, banh mi, po’ boys, gyros, and rotating specials. The menu was very eclectic. Taco Mondo’s menu was similarly eclectic, but we used the taco shell as a vehicle to bring all items together.”
Like other food truck operators, Nguyen has horror stories. A month and a half after opening the first truck, their generator blew up before their first huge event at the Chinatown Night Market. “We had to call a company to rent a generator and they showed up at the Night Market right when the event was starting,” Nguyen recalls. “We had another event that whole weekend, so we had to drive the truck to the event the following night. While driving down 95 South that evening, the truck broke down because the generator that blew up the day before [had] damaged the engine.” Revolution Taco opened as a brick-and-mortar in early 2016 and Nguyen eventually ceased truck vending: “My career really hasn’t changed. I went from being a food truck operator to a restaurant operator, so I basically just took off the wheels!”
The effervescent Josh Kim opened Spot Gourmet Burgers, a cheery bright-yellow trailer in February 2012. Prior to Spot, he owned and managed 200 ATMs throughout the tristate area. Back in 2013, for each service, he would offer five to seven different burgers with a special or two, such as beef bourguignon. Kim worked 80-plus hour weeks when he was just running the truck and for the first year, rotated vending locations in University City. “Within a year we were picking up catering gigs and trying out a few events. Eventually we gained ‘street cred’ and would go out on random nights throughout the city, tweeting our location,” Kim says, though he still had to work around Philadelphia’s Prohibited Streets List for vendors. (The movie Chef, where Jon Favreau sets up shop wherever he likes, is complete fantasy.)
In 2016, Kim opened a brick-and-mortar in Brewerytown. I ask him how he would compare the current food truck scene with that of 2013. “Not the same. Not even close,” he says. “Our generation were rock stars! We would pop-up, tweet, and within moments get a crowd.”