Keep on Truckin'

Five alumni drive the Philly food truck scene.

Photography By: 
Ryan S. Brandenberg, CLA ’14
Story by: 
Emily Kovach
Matt Craig, TYL ’12, and Kristen Mills,TYL ’12, the duo behind Cloud Coffee, aim to caffeinate the city while supporting artistic growth.

As you approach Flavor Blaster One—a custom-built, multimedia tricycle—warped ice cream truck music floats from small mounted speakers and colorful lights sparkle. A smiling attendant points to today’s flavors. Balsamic banana? Earl Grey sriracha? This is not your average ice cream experience.

That’s exactly what Pete Angevine, CLA ’10, envisioned when he conceived of an ice cream trike to launch Little Baby’s Ice Cream, a business he and two friends founded in 2011. “I wanted it to be an immersive zone, where you step into Little Baby land and it’s like an unexpected trip down New Memory Lane,” explains Angevine.

The element of surprise and delight, combined with a growing foodie culture, has catapulted food trucks from cult status to national mainstream craze. There are currently 113 food trucks registered with the Philadelphia Mobile Food Association, vending everything from authentic arepas to dressed-up Tater Tots. Over the past five years, food truck street fairs and competitions have popped up across Greater Philadelphia, attracting thousands of attendees.

As many Temple students and alumni know from their ubiquity on campus, food trucks don’t only refer to carts hawking egg sandwiches and hot dogs on street corners. These days, repurposed box trucks, vintage campers and even cargo tricycles dish up interesting, epicurean fare you might expect at a cute brunch joint, a hip gastropub or even a high-end restaurant.

And running a food truck is a popular, modern-day entrepreneurial endeavor with plenty of perks, like low overhead, freedom of mobility and direct engagement with customers.

Here’s how five Owls are cooking their way through Philadelphia.

One thing I believe in as a chef is that food should be democratic.
-- Daniel Tang, CLA ’08, of Sugar Philly

When Rob Mitchell, EDU ’95, ’96, talks about his mobile gourmet cheese curd operation, his eyes light up. “The truck is a dream,” he says. “You pull up, open the window, turn on your propane and go.” His passion for his truck is matched only by his expertise in food truck–related regulations, safety procedures and business practices. As a board member of the New Jersey and National Food Truck associations and as president of Philadelphia’s chapter, Mitchell is a leader in the local food truck community.

In 1990, Mitchell came to Temple on a football scholarship. After a 16-year teaching career, he longed for change when inspiration struck as he helped out at a friend’s concession stand at an air show. “It was the absence of a ceiling, no boss, my destiny in my own hands,” he says. “I was instantly bitten by the entrepreneurial spirit.”

Mitchell and his wife, Laura Windham, started Stella Jeanne’s, a small concession company. They saw some success but soon realized their menu needed something unique. Windham, a native Midwesterner, suggested cheese curds: cheese in its youngest form, battered, fried and served with sauces. Despite friends’ doubts that Philadelphians would take kindly to cheese curds, the couple had faith. “We knew our demographic: They’re risk takers with adventurous palates,” Mitchell says.

The Cow and the Curd debuted in early 2013 in a used Chevrolet P30 truck dubbed “Cow 1,” and business began to grow: In 2015, the company sold over 40,000 pounds of cheese curds (up from 8,000 in 2013). It also received multiple awards, was highlighted on NBC’s 1st Look and the Food Network’s The Best Thing I Ever Ate.

Mitchell launched a second truck in 2014 and began selling to local bars and restaurants. He’s also designing a larger wholesale distribution operation. Another sign of success: It’s rarer now that locals ask him what cheese curds are, or mistake them for mozzarella sticks. “Our mission was to permeate the culinary lexicon of people here,” Mitchell says. “I don’t think it’s a stretch to say we created the cheese curd market on
the East Coast.”

While studying music education at Temple, Florence “Flo” Gardner, BYR ’99, worked in restaurants to support herself. “I’ve always had a deep passion for food,” she says. She shared this passion with her friend Robin
Admana, a culinary school graduate who worked in law.

Together they dreamed of doing something food-related, and in 2011, they took the leap. A waffle concept was something Philadelphia was missing, they thought.

In 2012, they formed Frolic Waffles, but soon after they received a cease-and-desist notice from a company of the same name in Ithaca, New York, and renamed themselves Foolish Waffles. “It actually embodies who we are better than ‘Frolic’ does,” Gardner says. “It nods to us being naïve.” 

While conducting an arduous search for the perfect truck (they went through three before finding the right one), they developed recipes, ordered equipment from Belgium, and recruited friends to try their sweet and savory yeasted waffles.

In April 2014, Gardner and Admana opened Foolish Waffles for business outside 30th Street Station. That summer they won a Best of Philly nod from Philadelphia magazine for their pork belly banh mi waffle. And in 2015, they received two Vendy awards and were named one of the 101 best food trucks in the country by the popular food website The Daily Meal.

Currently, the pair parks at the weekly Chestnut Hill farmers market and at Love Park twice a month. They cater private parties and work events like food truck festivals and concerts at the Mann Music Center in Fairmount Park. Gardner prefers this model to the commitment of a permanent spot.

“We like the flexibility and seasonality of the food truck,” she says. “We choose when and where it goes.”

Matt Craig, TYL ’12, and Kristen Mills,TYL ’12, met while pursuing MFAs in painting. During long studio hours, they commiserated about the lack of good coffee on campus and joked about opening a coffee truck together. “We thought it would be a way for us to work for ourselves, make art and teach,” Mills says.

After graduation, things got serious: That summer the duo started Cloud Coffee as an LLC and organized a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds. They purchased a retrofitted trailer in Washington state, flew to pick it up and drove back across the country. “There were some breakdowns, emotionally and mechanically,” says Mills.

In January 2013, they set up shop right outside of the Tyler School of Art. Cloud Coffee attracted fans who appreciated their offerings: local coffee and pastries, and specialty drinks made on a La Marzocco espresso machine. Since then, they’ve added two vans to their fleet for catering and storage.

The pair juggles the demands of their business while still teaching at Tyler and creating their own artwork: Craig paints, and Miller makes performance and videobased pieces. They also engage with the art community through their annual art competition, the Cloud Prize.

“Grad school gets you to think innovatively about how to do things in the world,” Miller says, “and it gave us this ‘we can figure this out no matter what’ mentality.”

Before Pete Angevine co-founded Little Baby’s Ice Cream, he spent lots of time touring the country, playing drums in art rock bands. Informed by a do-it-yourself ethic, his bands booked their own shows, drove their own vans, and lugged their own gear in and out of venues. This spirit influenced the infancy of Little Baby’s, which took to the streets in May of 2011 in a custom-built cargo tricycle. A trike, they reasoned, would
be cheaper than a storefront or even a truck and would provide maximum mobility.

“Almost the entirety of the business plan was to show up at the First Unitarian Church after shows and sell funny flavors of ice cream to people with tattoos and weird haircuts,” Angevine says. “But we immediately realized that there was a much bigger audience than that.”

That theory proved true, and Little Baby’s spent its first few years hauling the trikes (they had three more built: Flavor Blasters Red, Gold and Black) all over town. “Concerts, block parties, roller derbies, showers and weddings, book readings—we were everywhere,” Angevine says.

In 2012, Little Baby’s went bricks and mortar, with a headquarters on Frankford Avenue in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood. A second shop in West Philadelphia followed in 2014. Its outlandish flavors have gained such popularity that the company began wholesaling regionally this year. The trikes are still available for catering and marketing opportunities.

How new wave ice cream and his education are related might not be immediately clear, but Angevine makes a connection: He began at Temple in 2002, studying jazz performance, and graduated in 2010 with a degree in geography and urban studies. The variety of those experiences affected him on an intrinsic level. “They informed my perspective and gave me an insight into a way that cities and places work, and how I want to be in the world,” he explains.

After graduating with a degree in political science, Daniel Tang, CLA ’08, had a plan to move to Manhattan, find a job and begin his life. But that’s not how it worked out.

In early 2010, Tang’s friend John Suh approached him with a proposal: a dessert-themed food truck with Tang as the executive chef.

Cooking and baking were hobbies Tang had always enjoyed. And the idea of working at a straight-up, no-frills food truck appealed to him.

After a shaky trial run, Tang was dishing up classic desserts like panna cotta and crème brûlée to customers in West Philadelphia at 38th and Walnut streets. While brainstorming more portable dessert offerings, Suh and Tang arrived on a novel concept: French macarons, the sweet and colorful sandwich cookies. They put a few flavors on their menu and, Tang says, “We just took off.”

Over the past six years, Sugar Philly has become renowned for its authentic, creatively flavored macarons in a rainbow of hues. Some are classic (chocolate hazelnut), while others veer into unexpected territory (fruit loop). And Tang has found his niche.

The walk-up nature of food trucks allows Tang to liberate high-end confections from traditional, white tableclothed fine dining establishments. And this squares up with his culinary values: “One thing I believe in as a
chef is that food should be democratic.” ■