Bob Rifkin, a Philadelphia food truck owner, serves freshly baked donuts with a fork. His customizable baked goods are more complex than the average powdered donut.
Undrgrnd Donuts is a popular newcomer among food trucks citywide. The truck “surfaces,” as its Twitter account often says, on Main Campus three days a week and parks in front of Presser Hall near the Tyler School of Art. On other days, Undrgrnd Donuts can be found on University of Pennsylvania and Drexel’s campuses or catering private parties and events.
Rifkin said a pastry business was not always his aspiration.
“I’ve been a chef at the Marriott for 20 years and I teach culinary classes in South Philly, but I’d never done anything with pastries,” Rifkin said. “But for the truck, I didn’t want to go with the same entrée kind of deal that everyone else does, but everyone else does cupcakes and I got sick of that idea.”
That’s when the idea of serving specialized donuts came about. Rifkin said he didn’t want to serve typical glazed or Boston cream donuts – he wanted to make something original and fun. Customers can pick a donut off of the menu or create their own using the different choices for “dunk”: a crunch topping, a swirl or a “dusting.”
If Rifkin and the other workers like a creation, it is added to the menu and website. The donut’s creator gets to name it.
“Our best sellers are the French toast, the ‘Captain Kranky’ [strawberry dunk, Captain Cruch topping] and the ‘Homer’ [vanilla dunk, raw sugar, chocolate and bacon chunks] – the more savory and sweet ones,” Rifkin said. “We wanted to do gourmet, but Federal Donuts already did that and I’m friends with the owner there. We have an agreement that I’ll never open a shop and he’ll never open a truck.”
Although Rifkin is enjoying his new business venture, he said he can’t take the credit for its startup, as it was his nephew’s idea. Originally looking at an option to open a franchise in Maryland, Rifkin realized he didn’t have the amount of money needed to put into the business. That’s when the truck idea surfaced.
“My nephew was thinking and all of a sudden said, ‘Uncle Bob, can you put it in a truck?’ and I said ‘Yeah, I think I can make that happen,’ and we went from there,” Rifkin said. “As for the design, we looked at over 20 and my brother-in-law’s best friend actually came up with the one we’re using – a donut with the Philly skyline coming out of the top.”
Rifkin said operating out of the truck is surprisingly manageable, despite the spatial needs of baking donuts. The donut batter is made in the truck each morning and the donuts are made in a machine he calls a “donut robot,” which bakes them in the appropriate shape.
“We have an automated deep-fryer that dispenses the batter, flips the donut and it comes out hot and warm and ready to top,” Rifkin said. “When you get your donut from us it’s probably a minute old. We had to stop coming up with combos after 250 and then narrowed it down to an original baker’s dozen.”
Rifkin said he has been happy with the business at Temple. He first planned to come to Main Campus twice a week, but after great successes increased those visits to three a week. Being a part of the Philadelphia Mobile Food Association, Rifkin said he hasn’t had any difficulties in maintaining the business on campus due to the camaraderie between the truck owners in the organization. Other truck owners on campus have also lent a helping hand.
“We like Temple,” Rifkin said. “It’s our favorite college in Philadelphia. We just love the location and decided to come here more often. Everyone here has been really helpful. The guys at the Creperie tell us about parking, Richie’s been here forever and gave us some advice and a lot of our customers grab a French press from Matt at Cloud Coffee with their donut.”
Rifkin said he doesn’t believe Undrgrnd competes with fellow dessert truck Insomnia Cookies. He said he just sees his product as an alternative and believes his truck to be something totally different due to its mobility.
“We’re more of an alternative than competition,” Rifkin said. “You may not eat donuts every day, but you don’t eat cookies every day either, you know? Also, I don’t believe having the truck in one permanent spot adds long-term value. Being in one place doesn’t let everyone try your product. You need to spread it out.”
Undrgrnd Donuts has been well-received by students, causing some buzz on Twitter.
“Had my first @UndrgrndDonuts trip today and it was unreal,” Twitter user @BRINdisiDAHUMAN wrote.
Sean Harrington, a senior risk management major, said he enjoys that there are new, interesting snack options on campus.
“The variety is great, and it’s cool that they’re not just your run-of-the-mill donuts,” Harrington said. “I really like the ‘Homer,’ but I can’t wait to try the others, too.”
Rifkin said he hopes the attention to Undrgrnd Donuts will spread throughout the city. He’s a firm believer that donuts are the next hot item for food trucks and fast, convenient food alike.
“We’re the only donut truck in the city,” Rifkin said. “I scoped out the few cupcake trucks and even they can’t say that they can put machinery into their trucks like we do. I think we’re safe for a little while.”
Ariane Pepsin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.