by Grant Moser

Mt. Airy resident Andrew Gerson, 29, is the chef and owner of Strada Pasta, a gourmet food truck, and the driving force behind the Philadelphia Mobile Food Association (PMFA), a new organization attempting to change the landscape for food trucks and carts in the city.

To many people, the mention of a food truck conjures up an old metal hunk that sells sandwiches, hot dogs and Italian sausages. It is exactly this idea of a ‘roach coach’ that Gerson wants to dispel. “There’s a real growth in the food truck sector, especially the gourmet part,” he explained. “There’s a Thai truck coming; you have L.O.S. (Lucky Old Souls) Burgers that do gourmet burgers, Chewy’s that also does gourmet burgers, Pitruco Pizza and Nomad Pizza that are doing high-end Neapolitan pizzas in a brick oven, and my concept for Strada Pasta is to be doing all local, sustainable, handmade pasta dishes.”

Food trucks are undergoing a bit of a renaissance right now “because it provides food access. It’s a new communal way of eating, and it’s on the go. It allows you quick access; not a lot of people have time to sit down. With the growth of a lot of these gourmet trucks, you can get a pretty decent meal between $7 and $12 and in a shorter time frame than a restaurant.”

Philadelphia isn’t the only city experiencing this growth. Austin, Portland, and Los Angeles also have a really strong mobile food industry. Gerson should know: he wrote his thesis at Skidmore College on how food trucks can be used to promote sustainable agriculture in urban environments. “It increases neighborhood vitality and the sense of community and creates food access, especially in underprivileged areas without access to good food, and those are things PMFA would like to tackle.”

The impetus behind the formation of PMFA was what Gerson encountered when he started his own food truck. “The more I spoke to people, the more it seemed there were a lot of difficulties, and there was a lot of support for these ideas [of an association]. It’s a way to talk about the issues. Where one truck would have difficulty going to City Council and being heard, this was a way to create a communal voice and  to share resources and help each other out.

“Philadelphia is a tough city for mobile food. There’s been a lot of legislation that doesn’t allow for growth of the sector. Center city is very difficult to vend in, if at all, so we’ve been talking to the parks and recreation department. They opened up Love Park last year to vendors that’s been a huge success creating food access and providing small businesses the opportunity to grow. But in other areas it’s very difficult to vend. We’re in discussion with Parks & Rec to hopefully open up more parks in the city. There’s also a moratorium from midnight to 7 a.m. that doesn’t allow trucks to operate, which is prime time for the bar scene.”

Currently, Gerson estimates there are about 500 food trucks and carts operating in the city, with many more carts than trucks. Most food trucks are near colleges such as Penn, Temple and Drexel. Gerson envisions getting more access to the downtown business crowd by grouping trucks together.

The association is also focusing on lobbying efforts to change existing legislation, and is in the process of forming a 501(c)6 that would give them the ability to lobby. Their first event was the Philly Craft Beer Festival on March 3. They had five trucks at the festival, which was attended by 3500. Every truck sold out all of its food.

Gerson is also working on helping “truckers” with more practical matters such as obtaining financing for truck renovations and getting group insurance rates for members. The association also has a website that it uses to provide information to members about financing, legislation, a rough map of food truck locations in the city, etc.

Apart from PMFA, Gerson is also running Strada Pasta. Why would a college graduate with a master’s degree in gastronomy and food communications from the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy and experience in a “slew of restaurants” want to start a food truck?

“It’s the entrepreneurial spirit, the ability to run things the way you want to run it, on a slightly smaller scale. There are difficulties with both a truck and a restaurant, but I think it’s the ability to communicate with your consumers in a way you don’t really have in restaurants as a chef. Being able to gauge reaction, a truck seems like a more dynamic interface with the consumer … And since the operating costs are lower with a truck, you can purchase better products and still meet your price points.”

This enterprising Mt. Airy resident sees beyond just creating a presence downtown. “We intend to work with Mt. Airy USA and other organizations to help bring more trucks up here. L.O.S. Burger truck has been attending the Chestnut Hill Farmers Market with success. There is definitely potential for trucks in this area.”

To learn more about PMFA, visit http://www.phillymfa.com.