At Mac Mart, building an empire out of … mac and cheese?

Seven years ago, Marti Lieberman said, her mother, Sally, ordered “healthy, adult food” for her college graduation party.

Marti balked. She wanted an indulgence. “She’s like, ‘Go to the supermarket. Get whatever you want,'” Marti says. “I have no idea why, but I grabbed a bunch of cheeses, I grabbed heavy whipping cream, I grabbed some seasonings, and I was like, ‘I’m gonna make mac and cheese.’ And I made it, and I don’t know how to say it without sounding like I’m [full of myself], but people were raving about it.”

That could have been the end of it. Lieberman is not a trained cook. She had zero restaurant experience. But several months after that party — realizing that her chosen career was not what she had hoped — she pivoted.

Seven years later, Lieberman, 28, and her sister, Pamela, 31, are riding high with Mac Mart. What started five years ago as a food truck at Drexel University now includes a shop at 104 S. 18th St. in Rittenhouse Square, a stand at the University of Delaware, and another college location on the way.

Leading up to National Mac and Cheese Day — July 14 — we chatted about her particular macaroni situation.

Camera icon MICHAEL KLEIN / Staff
Marti Lieberman tops a bowl of mac and cheese at Mac Mart, 104 S. 18th St., while Charles Wiedenmann tends the register.
How did this all happen?

It’s not that interesting. I graduated Drexel in 2011 and I had my sights set on a career in PR and fashion, so I immediately got a job at a luxury clothing store in Philadelphia. And I very quickly learned that what they show in movies and TV in the fashion world was not reality. In the first four months, I realized I needed to do something on my own.

I wasn’t totally sure what it was going to be, but food trucks are really up and coming, [and] the mac and cheese that I had made for my college graduation party seemed to make a lot of people happy. I figured if I was going to do anything on my own, it was going to be something the city didn’t have. So, I quit my job and I told my family I was going to open a mac-and-cheese food truck and it was kind of “Prove it, and we’ll back you.”

I got things rolling, I tested recipes and then I had to get the licenses, and then I got the licenses and I realized once I had the licenses, I probably needed a truck and then when I got a truck, I was like, “Oh, it’s happening?”

Did anybody try to talk you out of it?

No. People kept asking, “Well, what if it fails?” But my response was really like, “I won’t let it.” Because I had nothing. I had nothing else. I was a college graduate in a time when getting a job was very difficult. I’m not a neurosurgeon. I didn’t go to school with a degree that someone would look at and need me. I needed to create a job for myself.

Camera icon MICHAEL KLEIN / Staff
Marti (left) and Pamela Lieberman at Mac Mart, 104 S. 18th St.
How were the early days?

The first week was a nightmare only because I didn’t know what I was doing. To customers, it was great and because I was a 21-, 22-year-old girl, I knew immediately that the social-media aspect I had to do well on and I knew how to do that because I was that age. I actually had started the Twitter a year before the truck opened to get hype up and to get people excited. On the customer end, I had a nice group of people that were ready for the truck. It was on my end that it was not so smooth. I was buying my food at Walmart. I was prepping everything in little aluminum tins. … I didn’t know Restaurant Depot existed until other truckers came on my truck and kind of laughed at what I was doing. Then I got the hang of it pretty quickly.

Customers were really nice from the start, and I went into it knowing that because I’m not in the food business, because I’m not a chef or cook, that customer service would be at the forefront of everything. Even if someone didn’t like my food, they were going to have a good experience in the truck.

Do you remember the first day?

Jan. 10, 2013. We parked at 33rd and Arch, but not on the popular side. It was on a huge slant. I opened the window and right away when I put the aluminum tray of cheese on the steam table, it fell in. I couldn’t use that. I had to start a new one. A customer comes to the window. His name was Sam. I so remember him. And he ordered and he gave me a $20. And I looked at my mom who was, of course, taking pictures and so excited. She was like, “Give him change.” And I was like, “Change?” I had no idea what I was doing. And so my mom went in her wallet and gave him change. I closed, ran to the bank, got change and kind of pulled it together.

Why did you decide to open a shop?

I had always been against it. My sister, Pamela, came on shortly after the truck opened, and then my boyfriend [Garrett Jablonski] came on, as well, and we were very lucky to have pulled it together. It wasn’t until we realized we were actually [annoying] regulars because we were fortunate enough to get so much catering that we were no longer accessible to people. And being a food truck, most of the public sees it as “it’s great because you’re on wheels.” Well, it’s not that easy. You’re driving around a 20-ton truck that breaks down, you have to transport food safely. And so we would literally go to one catering job and be done for the day. I mean, granted, the money was great, so we didn’t need to vend after that, but it wasn’t fair to our regulars that really got us to where we were.

So, while I was against it — the people that got us to where we were, we were no longer serving them. We didn’t see them every day. We figured if we find a stationary location, they can always get to us if they are able to.

What’s your plan?

We don’t want to franchise, but we’d like to have some sort of visibility on a lot of campuses so whether that be a little booth or within the food halls or a grab and go like we are at University of Delaware. We are working with another company for freeze-shipping, so people can go online and purchase trays and send it to your buddy at college or you can send it to your family for Thanksgiving.

What are your best-sellers?

In the Buff — our buffalo chicken mac with PamPam’s buttermilk ranch. That’s our homemade buttermilk ranch. Definitely our crabby mac, which is my mom’s crab dip recipe. It’s all jumbo lump crabmeat in a cream-cheese-based dip. It’s really good — and I don’t even like dips, really, or something of that consistency — and it’s delicious.

You must hear from people saying, “This is not exactly diet food.”

We’re not diet food. We’re not trying to be diet food. In my head, we kind of laugh behind the counter every time someone comes in with their friend. The friend has already gotten a salad from one of these delicious salad places on Chestnut Street, but I’ve kind of been laughing because you’re getting a salad with an olive oil- or mayo-based dressing that is going to completely void all of the healthiness in your bowl. We’re a cheat meal, or we’re the meal you eat if you want your belly full and you go to the gym later. How you eat your food or you plan your diet is not up to us, but we use all real food. We don’t have a fryer. Nothing’s ever frozen. We hand-trim all of our boneless, skinless chicken breast. We make all of our dips from scratch. Nothing is bad. Calorically, yeah. You could probably eat an apple and do better, but salads nowadays are packed with calories and fat. And this is seven real cheeses. Everything in moderation.

What are the seven cheeses?

I can’t tell you.