Expenses take a toll on lunch truck owners

Financial issues arise for truck owners, such as buying ingredients and ownership licenses.  The cost of running a lunch truck on Main Campus seems to be rising, as some trucks have recently increased food prices.

Financial issues arise for truck owners, such as buying ingredients and ownership licenses.

 The cost of running a lunch truck on Main Campus seems to be rising, as some trucks have recently increased food prices.

Trucks such as Insomnia Cookies, which has raised the prices of its cookies from $1 to $1.25 and the 5 Dollar Foot Long truck, which now charges $5.50 for each sandwich it sells, are two examples of the increasing food costs implemented by trucks this school year.

But, it takes a different kind of financial strategy to run an effective takeout restaurant-on-wheels. With the number of lunch trucks on Main Campus always growing, owners have to make sure they outsmart the competition.

Becoming licensed

Some trailers and trucks that are parked around Main Campus come from a long legacy of being in the lunch truck business. Several owners said the trucks they have maintained or purchased from another vender have been passed down for generations.

Estimates for the cost of a used trailer from campus vendors come to approximately $5,000-$10,000, while larger lunch trucks can cost tens of thousands more. On top of the cost of a truck, owners must pay $340 to open their vending unit with the Office of Food Protection in Philadelphia.

To be able to sell food, the lunch trucks also need a city license, which requires an additional fee of $80. If vendors pass the inspection, they receive a Food Establishment Personnel Food Safety Certificate, which needs to be renewed annually.

Traditional home-cooking

At the Teppanyaki Japanese and Korean food truck, located near the corner of 12th and Norris streets, owner Inson Kim ensures that her truck will consistently make a profit with its unique menu offered.

Teppanyaki is a family-run business operated by three sisters and other relatives who all take turns working in the truck. Sun Muray, one of the sisters, said Kim obtained the truck from a former owner and that they have been opened on campus about six months.

The menu is prepared daily and includes mostly family recipes like fried vegetable dumplings, sweet and spicy fried chicken wings and Teppanyaki-style foods. The Teppanyaki style of cooking, which is native to Japan, is a grilling technique that Muray said makes the truck popular.

“You need to find something you’re good at,” Muray said, describing the key to making a food-truck menu. “We don’t make the Teppanyaki 100 percent Japanese because then people here wouldn’t like it. [Vendors] need to know what the people will like.”

Muray said the business’ financial woes are at its worst when students have summer or winter breaks. She added that tuition increases have also affected sales on campus.

“The tuition went up and the students don’t have much money to spend on food,” Muray said.  “[Tuition] needs to decrease so the kids can buy the lunch, that’s the main issue.”

However, Muray said she doesn’t see the other food trucks on campus as competition and she expects the family truck will continue to be profitable.

“Everyone around here makes the same thing, stuff like cheesesteaks or pizza,” Muray said. “We are the only place that has [Teppanyaki] and we’re very popular.”

Fresh ingredients

Nancy’s truck, located on Montgomery Avenue near Ritter Hall, is smaller than most other trucks around campus, but owner Saroun Nop said he is looking to remain at his spot for the years to come.

The lunch truck has been selling fruit salads and smoothies for three years, but Nop, who works alongside his wife, Nancy, said the cost of fruit constantly increases. With rising expenses over the years, Nop said he has had to charge more money for product.

“I do this for a living,” Nop said. “But this year we don’t make much profit because the fruit is so expensive. So this year we didn’t make any money.”

Plagued by inheriting an older truck when he took it over, Nop said he had to update all of its appliances, including a water tank that cost $1,000. Another key expense for the owner is the cost of the ingredients to make his smoothies.

“I buy fruit three times a week,” Nop said. “We have to keep it fresh all the time.”

He said the food is bought locally, but the wholesale warehouse that sells the fruit, is inflating its prices. Nop has seen the price of cantaloupe alone increase during the past week by as much as $5 a case.

He also finds the inspection process strenuous and costly. Health inspectors show up unannounced and sometimes during peak lunch hours. Nop said he needs to keep the fruit chilled at a certain temperature or he won’t pass the inspection.

Three years ago, he said inspectors would come once a year for inspection, but recently Nop said he will see inspectors almost every week when classes are in session.

The amount of profit coming in hasn’t been encouraging for Nop, but he said he will continue his business. He added that he would like to buy a bigger truck in the near future, so he can begin to make more money.

Catering to students’ palettes

Susan’s truck, on 12th Street between Norris Street and Montgomery Avenue, offers more than 80 different food items and owner Maria Redzaj said she is planning to add more to the menu soon.

Redzaj is looking to bulk up the lunch truck’s menu by making some new food items available.

“I’m trying to get people to eat healthy,” Redzaj said. “There’s a lot of starch in the foods they order.”

Redzaj said she now offers a wheat roll option for customers and hopes to put soup and pasta salad on the menu soon. She said she will make changes to the menu depending on what items are selling the most or based on the weather.

A first generation immigrant from Montenegro, Redzaj said her aspirations as a vendor come from her childhood. Redzaj grew up on a farm where her mother used to start baking bread for the family at 5 a.m.

“When you’re on a farm you make everything from scratch,” Redzaj said.

Redzaj first worked in New York after immigrating and gained about 15 years of experience catering and doing other food service jobs.  Currently, she lives in Burlington County, N.J. and commutes to her lunch truck, where she works long hours.

The truck is open seven days a week from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends.

The numbers that correspond to each food item, displayed on the side of the truck, help Redzaj take orders quickly when she has long lines. The menu ranges from items such as cheesesteaks and wings to flounder and gyros.

Although Redzaj’s extensive menu has something to please almost anyone in a crowd, she said that she still faces “a lot” of financial challenges on a weekly basis.

The business has about $1,000 in expenses each week, Redzaj said. Some of those expenses consist of paying rent and buying ingredients.

Redzaj said Temple has helped provide her business with some additional funds, as the back of the truck will continually be used as advertising space. She also finds ways to cut costs by buying food in bulk to limit the number of deliveries each week.

“We get some profit, otherwise we would close,” Redzaj said. “There’s a lot of business on Temple’s campus.”

Connor Showalter can be reached at connor.showalter@temple.edu.

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