Operators talk about food-truck business

20130509_inq_fd1chat09z-a
Hawaiian-style tacos - Kalua pork, pork belly, and chicken katsu - from the Poi Dog Philly cart.

This is an excerpt from Craig LaBan's online chat of May 8, 2013:

Craig LaBan: Welcome to the Food Truck edition of our chat! I have two of my favorite food truck owners cohosting: Kiki Aranita from Poi Dog Philly, a Temple-based cart serving Hawaiian snack foods, and Alan Krawitz of Say Cheese Philadelphia, one of the "pioneers" of this generation of food trucks, whose Drexel-based truck specializes in variations on grilled cheese and house-cured meats. What sparked your interest in running a food cart or truck?

A.K.: Starting Say Cheese was initially a joke. We thought it would be hilarious to open a food truck selling only grilled cheese. The more we delved into the nuts and bolts of the business, we realized there was really something there. Since then, we've been flexing our creative muscles. 

K.A.: Hawaiian food is underrepresented on the East Coast and I'm on a personal mission to share how wonderful it is.

Reader: Any word on the Garage bar project on E. Passyunk that was to host multiple food trucks at a time in its space?

C.L.: And what else do you think is missing, in terms of infrastructure or city backing, to help the scene flourish more?

A.K.: This city's trucks lack the ability to access its most densely populated areas. We need to have rotating lots in center city where we'd be able to service more people at lunch time. Also, access to late-night service would benefit all of our businesses.

C.L.: What has surprised you most in this business?

K.A.: What's surprised me most is people's response to us and the attention we've been getting. People with connections to Hawaii keep emerging as if from the woodwork, excited about eating the things they miss.

C.L.: I think a lot of people have a romanticized vision of what it must be like to run a food cart. What are the biggest misperceptions? How long do you guys work behind the scene, btw, before you ever get out on the road?

A.K.: Say Cheese grinds on Sundays for about 8-10 hours to put out enough product for a five-day workweek. The total hours of work per week approach 80. If an event or catering has to be executed, the prep hours can grow exponentially based on the amount of food we need to put out.

K.A.: We spend most of our time working behind the scene - probably 70 percent. Prepping, cleaning, worrying about repairs, doing paperwork. A customer asked me what my day job was - since I only spend a few hours serving lunch. This is my day and my night job.

C.L.: What are the bureaucratic obstacles in Philadelphia standing in the way of a bigger food truck revolution?

K.A.: The city makes things extremely confusing. Even if L&I makes the process to getting a business license simple, they are so backed up with mail that you can't mail an application in without waiting 4 months. But you can go to the municipal services building and get it within a day with paperwork.

A.K.: The bureaucratic obstacles we face on a daily basis are varied. Sometimes we face issues from the PPA. Sometimes we face issues with L&I. Other days it's the Health Dept. As truckers we are inspected sometimes 30 times per year depending on the number of large events we do. Most restaurants are inspected no more than twice per year, if that.