Tamekah Bost and her siblings grew up on her grandmother’s cooking. Geraldine Hunter was frugal. Though the kids hungered for cheesesteak egg rolls, “which you can find on every street corner, she didn’t want to waste money on takeout,” said Bost. “We kept bugging her.” Bost said she also didn’t like the onions included in typical egg rolls.
Hunter went to the store and bought meat, American cheese, and egg-roll wrappers, and panfried them. Happy kids. “She put in the effort,” Bost said. “It was like our favorite thing.”
Flash forward to Bost in her early 20s, by then a graduate of Germantown High, working as an emergency medical technician who hosted events on the side. Her grandmother had passed in 2012 from lung cancer.
For one occasion, Bost made cheesesteak egg rolls. Why egg rolls? “It’s simple,” she said. “You can make a lot of them at once.” Happy customers. She began tinkering, making what she calls “twisted egg rolls.”
That success steered her deeper into the food business. “There are two things I really love: Chinese American takeout and cheesesteaks,” said Bost, now 25. (Say her last name as “boast.”)
“As a Philadelphian, they’re very true to me. I didn’t want [my brand] to be basic. I really wanted to marry two categories.”
Enter the Better Box. She came up with not only a line of egg rolls filled with such ingredients as salmon, seafood, and chicken, she riffed on the Chinese takeout canon with such items as topped fried rice, loaded fries, and a General Tso chicken cheesesteak.
Authentic Chinese food? No way. Indulgent? Oh, my, absolutely.
While juggling EMT shifts, Bost rented commissary space in the city’s Bridesburg section in March 2018 and started the Better Box as a ghost kitchen.
The business, selling food out of Chinese-style takeout boxes, was delivery only. It exploded so quickly that she began to outgrow the shared kitchen.
She bought a food truck in 2019, while using the kitchen as its commissary. Rather than park the truck near a university or in a downtown commercial district, “I went to the community,” she said. “I wanted to go where the [other] food trucks never wanted to cater to.”
That would be Logan. She parked on what she called “a random street corner” on Somerville Avenue near Broad Street that was near public transportation.
“It was a grind,” she said. She was working 40 hours a week as an EMT and then spending Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays prepping food and serving on the food truck.
“We really built up a fan base, and the lines grew longer,” she said. “We would open at 12 and sell out by 4.” Then she added sweet potato cheesecake and things exploded. “We had to put up signs, ‘Please don’t double-park,‘” she said. People were driving long distances, and finding that the truck was sold out. “It couldn’t hold enough food,” she said. All the sauces are made from scratch, all the rolls are done by hand.
“We needed a space that was affordable and big enough, and had a parking lot,” she said.
In August 2019, she rented a storefront next to a Rita’s shop at 8601 Frankford Ave. in Holmesburg. It’s takeout only. But it is in Northeast Philadelphia, miles from Logan. Although Bost had expanded her clientele, she knew that it is a hike for her original customers. She idled the truck. She also allowed Charisse McGill, whose Lokal Artisan Foods specializes in French toast bites, to work out of the new space.
Bost wanted a second shop and she looked more toward Center City to make it more convenient for people from West Philadelphia. Earlier this year, she found a former kebab house at 1519 Spring Garden St., a block from Community College of Philadelphia, and began setting up a takeout counter with seating on two floors. Opening was scheduled for April.
Then the coronavirus hit. Bost decided to wait till June 12 to open. The loosening of the coronavirus restrictions means that she can admit customers for walk-in ordering. A guard allows six customers in the shop at a time. There is an ordering kiosk plus handheld computers, as well.
Initially, the restaurants are open from Thursday to Sunday.
As for the name: “Our brand is classic Chinese takeout with a Philly twist,” Bost said. “Their box is good, but this box is better.”