Going Gourmet
The men and women in the food trucks trolling city and suburban streets crank out cuisine of increasingly sophisticated caliber
by Leigh Stuart

One might consider Jessica Iannuzzi an unlikely motorhead. At the age of 8, she started racing quarter midget cars at Oaklane Speedway in Trumbauersville, then graduated to driving United States Auto Club midget cars. Although she stopped racing in her mid-20s to take a job with a title insurance company, she was ultimately drawn back behind the wheel.

Today she spends most of her days on the road with fiancé Stephen Koste, putting miles of asphalt beneath their tires, the hum of the motor filling their ears. Together they own Sum Pig, a food truck they opened in October 2012 because they “were kind of tired of working for other people,” she says. Although their food truck maintains its home base in Warminster, Sum Pig roves the city and suburbs, serving smoked pulled pork, roast beef and other “globally inspired gourmet comfort food” crafted with help from Koste’s prior experience managing a restaurant. 

“We get a lot of satisfaction feeding people,” Iannuzzi says, “And we like the freedom. … We work long hours, we work a lot of hours, but we work our own hours.”

Iannuzzi and Koste have plenty of company in the Philadelphia area, as a fleet of such migratory meal-makers have assembled to take first-rate Philly cuisine to the streets. Foods of an almost indescribably vast array of tastes, ethnicities and origins—from Sum Pig’s smoked pork parfait to Zea May’s Food Truck & Kitchen’s quinoa with berries and lemon vinaigrette to Poi Dog Snack Shop’s tofu musubi—are available from the windows of food trucks found throughout the region’s neighborhoods.

The truck owners themselves are as diverse as the foods they serve, boasting a range of academic and workplace backgrounds. Although purveyors such as Iannuzzi and Koste are relatively new to the restaurant business, there are others—Nick Farina, owner and chef of Bryn Mawr’s Verdad Restaurant—for whom cuisine has been a longtime passion. Farina, who studied at The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College and the Culinary Institute of America, is fairly new to the food-truck business, as he only recently added a truck to complement his brick-and-mortar restaurant’s popular Euro-Latin cuisine.

“Philadelphia is really a huge market [for food trucks] and … in the last 10 years we have distinguished ourselves as a city that’s ahead of the curve,” he says. “We’re now trendsetters.”

Jon Murphy, operations manager and partner of food truck Local 215 (pronounced “two-one-five,” like the area code—not “two-15,” like a labor union), agrees: “There’s a very good food culture here. … You can’t go five blocks without hitting a farmers’ market in Philadelphia during the season.”

While Farina says the truck won’t be a regular fixture on the roving food scene until spring, he has used the truck to cater events around town and has even vended at events such as the Main Line Jazz & Food Festival.

“It’s fun,” he says. “We get to [hear] music, be outside a little bit, see something other than just the four walls of our kitchen here.”

Other festivals include Mt. Airy Street Fare, an annual event inviting trucks from around the area to the city’s Mt. Airy neighborhood to park, serve and sate. Elizabeth Moselle, director of commercial corridor revitalization and business development with Mt. Airy USA, worked to organize the Street Fare gathering. Although the event recently celebrated its third anniversary, this year it was rebranded from its former Mt. Airy Night Market identity.

“When you get a lot of food trucks together it is really exciting,” she says. “You can bring businesses and food options into a neighborhood that aren’t usually there and that’s very exciting for people. It’s really fun to put something like that together, people really enjoy it. It’s just a win-win.

“There’s a different level of cuisine than food trucks used to have,” she continues. “They feature foods you don’t always see in a truck and I think there’s some novelty in that.”

Food trucks are gaining popularity for multiple reasons. From a business perspective, they present unique opportunities for chefs to explore new ideas, according to Local 215’s chef/owner Alex Buckner.  

“Fundamentally, people want to take risks, people want to cook interesting food and I think people see small business ownership as a platform do so,” he says. “People crunch the numbers and see food trucks as having the most manageable barriers to entry; whether or not that’s an illusion, ask me in a couple years.”

Like Iannuzzi and Koste, Buckner was drawn into mobile foodservice as a result of his “strong desire to cook more, cook my own food and be my own boss.”

“Working in restaurants can be very frustrating,” he says, “because you always want to try new things, explore new ideas and take risks with your cuisine, which isn’t always possible and often isn’t encouraged while working as a line cook in most restaurants.”

While foodies won’t be able to enjoy major truck get-togethers such as Philadelphia’s Night Markets and Mt. Airy Street Fare until next year, food trucks will be found throughout the area even as the weather grows cold. Major arteries such as Market, Race, Arch, Spruce and Locust, as well as oft-visited parks and public spaces such as the Porch at 30th Street Station and Love Park, still have regular truck traffic.

‘The Best Thing’

Although the barriers to entry are much lower than getting into the restaurant business from a more traditional perspective, running a food truck comes with its share of challenges. Some are similar to those encountered in a brick-and-mortar location (crafting a consistently high-quality product, procuring inventory, battling competition, etc.), while others are different (finding the right spots to lure in foot traffic and working out of a space not much bigger than a good-sized closet, etc.). It’s a tough way to churn a profit, and some have chosen to step away from the business after dipping their toes in the water—Jose Garces’ ballyhooed Guapos Tacos, for example, which shuttered in 2012—in order to focus their attention elsewhere.

“Mobile food service is tough,” says Buckner. “There is this misconception that food trucks have it easier than restaurants and hold an unfair advantage. This is a fallacy. The truth is we have a restaurant but every service we have to break down. … It’s a lot of extra steps. And on top of that it’s a struggle to find places, times and events to just be at serving food. We can’t just turn the lights on or flick on the ‘open’ sign.”

So how does a person know when and where their favorite food truck will be serving? The best way to locate a food truck on any given day is to “follow” the truck on a social media site such as Facebook or Twitter, which Iannuzzi suggests have helped food trucks tremendously.

“It is sort of one of the only ways we can let people know where we are going to be on a given day,” she says. “Facebook and Twitter are so important to us. We tweet out every day where we are; we Facebook every day where we are.”

Moselle agrees. Of September’s Mt. Airy Street Fare, which drew more than 10,000 visitors, she says, “You can’t expect to get that kind of attendance if you don’t put effort into PR and marketing.”

Iannuzzi adds, “In the beginning it’s really discouraging. … You’re going to have good spots, you’re going to have bad spots; the important part is to keep plugging away. You are going to get that one event and it’s just going to explode your business.

“It’s been a learning experience thus far but it’s been a great success,” she continues. “We’re really, really happy. It’s the best thing we ever did.”

Photograph by M. Kennedy for GPTMC