On Main Campus, food trucks are connected by more than just the streets they crowd. Some truck owners can trace their roots back to the same country or culture of origin, even as closely as blood relation.
In the past several decades, Eastern European newcomers settled into the once unfamiliar territory of Philadelphia and its surrounding areas, establishing businesses in the food industry, such as restaurants, trucks, carts and the like.
Adzij Kovevic, owner of the Adriatic Grill at the 12th Street Food Pad, came to the United States in 1993 from Montenegro to avoid wars, political unrest and to finally follow a dream he said he was chasing for many years.
“I finished culinary school at home and worked in many different restaurants all over Europe before I came to the U.S.,” Kovevic said. “It was my vision to start a business. My brother had left before me and told me all of the good things about the U.S., so I was excited to come.”
At one time, Kovevic enjoyed the life he led in Montenegro. But after the economy tanked, there was no opportunity to finish any type of schooling. Of Albanian descent, Kovevic and his family were also treated differently than others. He said he felt that immigrating to America was the only option.
“The situation was very bad all over Europe, but our country was a little worse,” Kovevic said. “I’m Albanian and that’s a minority in Montenegro, so we were treated poorly. I’m very lucky to live in the great neighborhood that I’m in now, and my life is much different. I love it.”
About 950 miles away from Montenegro is Ukraine, which also experienced economic downturn and similar migration to the U.S. by people who hoped to improve the lives of their families.
Michael Sigal, owner of the Bagel Shop at 13th Street and Polett Walk, emigrated from Kiev, Ukraine in 1988 with his family when he was 18 years old.
“We decided to come here for better opportunities,” Sigal said. “Things were kind of falling apart at that time. I was young and finishing college at the time, but things started to get bad so I felt like there was no other choice but to leave.”
Not always a bagel aficionado, Sigal said he didn’t initially plan on working in the food industry. It came into his life after he was unable to find a job, even one that paid minimum wage, for almost two years. He originally worked as a technician in the electronics business, but decided to get into the food business when a twist of fate brought him there.
“My parents actually knew the guy who used to run this business before I took it over,” Sigal said. “They were friends and found out he was retiring. He came from the Ukraine the same time that we did. After I couldn’t find work for so long, I decided to be my own boss.”
The owners of 12th Street Food Pad veteran Fame’s Famous Pizza said they are appreciative of the opportunities they’ve received after their family made the decision to come to the U.S. Jim Amzovski, co-owner of the business along with his brother Fame, said he’s thankful his parents immigrated to the U.S. in 1969.
“They wanted to come here for a better life for the family,” Amzovski said. “My parents started the business out with a hot dog cart, and my brother and I just took it from there.”
Of Albanian descent like Kovevic, the Amzovski family moved to America with the intent to start a family-operated business. They lived a few blocks from Temple in 1985 when they noticed someone was selling a lunch cart, so Amzovski and his brother decided to take it and make pizza. After the success of that business venture, they made the move to the 12th Street Food Pad 17 years ago.
“My parents always told us to work hard because there’s nothing free in life, so that’s what we’ve done,” Amzovski said. “That’s what makes us successful.”
The will to achieve is a culturally instilled value for many of the food establishment owners, but that’s not all they have in common – some of them are related as well. Kovevic’s first cousin is Selim Zeka, owner of the Sexy Green Truck, and the Amzovskis are cousins with Richie Jr., owner of Richie’s Deli and Pizza.
The familial connections played a part in the establishment of some of those businesses, owners said.
“[Zeka] told me about the location when it was available and that’s how I got it,” Kovevic said. “There are a lot of Albanians, so I was friends with a lot of people before we got into the business. I know the guys in the trucks up the street, too.”
Founded in 2009, the Sexy Green Truck is located on Montgomery Avenue by the Student Center and has gained popularity over the years for its organic ingredients. Zeka said he was glad to help Kovevic find the right place for his business, and that they work in close proximity to one another.
Fame’s and Richie’s, however, opened and operate independently of each other. Amzovski said he doesn’t think it causes competition between the two of them, even though they work in the same area.
“We were never business partners or anything, and being family doesn’t affect the competition between us,” Amzovski said. “I believe that if you have a good product, you’ll be OK no matter what you do.”
Family or not, the business owners still share a love for Temple. The people around them and the occupations they wouldn’t have been able to hold without help from their loved ones.
“I came to the U.S., got married, had kids and I like my work a lot,” Sigal said. “I enjoy making the people at Temple happy with my food. I really like [Temple] and I feel like I fit in well.”
Kovevic also said he is happy working on a college campus, particularly since it allows him to have time to spend with his family around the holidays and on vacations.
“My life is so much different now,” Kovevic said. “We love it here and we’re going to stay. My son will be a future Temple student. I love this location. It’s a beautiful place and it’s interesting to work here – you meet people from all over.”
Ariane Pepsin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.