Dean Varvoutis spends most of his workday trapped like a veal calf.
The space inside his vegetarian food truck is barely bigger than he is. There is hardly any room to move, but with tubs of salads, falafal, wraps, and sauces within arm’s reach, he doesn’t have to move much.
Varvoutis has parked his Magic Carpet Foods truck at 34th and Walnut streets on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. He’s been in the food truck business for 27 years.
“It’s the one-on-one relationship with customers,” said Varvoutis. “Restaurants are standoffish. We’ve known people who have met, gotten together, had kids, and now their kids are in college—that’s how long we’ve been here.”
This weekend, Varvoutis is a finalist in the Philadelphia Vendy Awards. Ten of the best food trucks will face-off at a public event Saturday at the Piazza at Schmidt’s in Northern Liberties.
Vendys have been awarded in New York for six years. This is the first year for the awards in Philadelphia. A panel of judges will award the Vendy Cup while a people’s choice award will be determined by diners who pay $55 to eat as much truck food as they want.
The proceeds will benefit the Food Trust. There is no cash prize, and vendors are donating their food.
Varvoutis says he is participating for the exposure.
“When I get famous, you little people are going to get left behind,” he joked with a customer through his truck window.
At nearby Drexel University, on Ludlow Street, tucked between two engineering school buildings, underneath an elevated train track, waits a block-long line of food trucks. You wouldn’t find it unless you knew it was there.
This is Food Truck Alley.
It’s where Robert Zapata learned to eat truck food, and it’s where he is now learning to sell it.
“I graduated in 2002, Hotel and Restaurant here at Drexel,” said Zapata while working the grill in his Cucina Zapata truck. “It’s a real honor and pleasure to be neighbors with the trucks I used to eat at.”
Zapata has been at this for barely three months. He is the only vendor on Food Truck Alley who is a finalist for a Vendy. Contenders were chosen by a public, online nomination process.
Anteaus Rezba, a computer programmer with the nearby University of Pennsylvania Health System, is already a champion of Zapata’s food.
“Fresh ingredients. No MSG. Cooked to order,” said Rezba. “Takes a little longer—it’s worth the wait. But the food is fresh, and it tastes really good. Everything else is maybe more suspect.”
The hallmarks of street food are that it’s cheap and it’s fast. In the last few years, it has also become hip. Along with Zapata’s fusion truck, there are a hot cookie truck, a cupcake truck, and a taco truck by celebrated Iron Chef Jose Garces, which can be followed via Twitter.
Nabil Akkeh, aka “the falafal king,” came to Philadelphia from Syria to open a food truck when a food truck wasn’t cool.
“I built my own truck because I didn’t have enough money when I started,” said Akkeh at 16th and Market streets, where he has been located since 1989. He says back then he had to teach Philadelphians what falafal is.
“When I start business, nobody was in the street, nobody familiar with falafal,” said Akkeh. “I bring the best falafel—my own recipe, very good. Healthy.”
Akkeh, a finalist, says he always wanted to open a restaurant but never had enough money. He put three kids through college with his food truck. When his last kid finishes Temple University, the 59-year-old says he will finally open that brick-and-mortar place.