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Rebecca Foxman recently received a catering request most food truck owners would relish. A customer who loves the gluten-free offerings at her fancy corn dog stand in the Reading Terminal Market wanted to hire her for a wedding.

But Foxman had to turn down the request, just as she has passed on other big paydays for catering jobs despite paying almost $74,000 to buy a food truck in early 2019.

“Three thousand dollars for a day’s work,” Foxman laments.

The problem? Eighteen months passed and the man Foxman paid, Gary Koppelman of Industrial Food Truck, never delivered the truck expected to be ready in four months. Koppelman has operated a string of businesses key to the growth of Philly’s food-truck scene over the last seven years, including the city’s largest spaces for vendors to park and prep their food, and a service to build trucks, too.

But Foxman’s food truck frustration only intensified as she connected with two dozen other aspiring operators who had similar dealings with Koppelman. Whether first-time entrepreneurs betting their life savings on a mobile kitchen, nonprofit institutions, or franchisees of big corporate brands, each identifies as a victim of Koppelman’s businesses.

An Inquirer review of lawsuits, criminal and bankruptcy court records, and interviews with nearly 30 former customers who either bought or leased food trucks from Koppelman since 2014 reveal a consistent pattern: a convincing sales pitch to secure big deposits followed by long delays, a longer list of excuses, and the belated delivery of trucks that were often defective, unfinished or unsafe — if they ever arrived at all.

When Foxman, 32, finally got her truck last summer, it was still just a half-completed shell, and she retrieved it only with the help of Philadelphia police. The truck now sits inoperable in a South Jersey storage facility, dusty with black plastic bags sealing its empty windows.

“I basically told [Koppelman] he had to give her back the truck because it was her property,” said Detective Dave Brzyski of the Philadelphia Police major crimes unit.

Foxman is not alone.

The Pittsburgh Food Bank says it still has not received the food truck on which it spent $57,000 in 2016 to expand its reach. When he was confronted about the dispute by leaders of a trade association, Koppelman told them the Food Bank was lying. The Kiamichi Technology Center, a vocational school district in Oklahoma, paid $113,000 in 2018 for a food truck that it has not received. Koppleman’s lawyer argued that Oklahoma courts don’t have jurisdiction over his Pennsylvania-based business.

“No business is perfect,” said Koppelman, who spoke briefly before declining to answer extensive questions for this article, citing the strain of a battle with cancer. “Have we ever defrauded anyone? Absolutely 100% no.”

Yet that is exactly what Foxman’s business, Fox & Son, is alleging in a lawsuit filed in June in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court against IFT and Koppelman, for breach of contract, unjust enrichment and fraud. Koppelman’s lawyer filed a reply last month, denying the allegations and arguing in part that the issues were too stale to face legal review.

Foxman sees her case as an attempt to hold a powerful figure in the region’s food truck world accountable for taking advantage of vulnerable entrepreneurs who rarely have the financial wherewithal or legal savvy to fight back.

Foxman, like many other food truck entrepreneurs she contacted, had no previous knowledge of Koppelman’s imprisonment in 2009 for wire fraud.

The Fox & Son complaint alleges, among many other things, that Koppelman lured customers with impressive sample trucks that he had not solely fabricated, as advertised, an accusation that he denies. But it is the latest in a string of such suits.

After Foxman towed her truck out of Koppelman’s garage in Philadelphia’s Kingsessing section, she took it to American Mobile Vending, a food truck manufacturer in Northeast Philadelphia, for an estimate to complete it. She had paid almost all of Koppelman’s $82,000 price tag at that point. But it still needed $50,000 more work, according to the suit.

“It had no gas lines, no generator, no electric,” says Erion Meni, the owner of American Mobile Vending. “Someone put a hood up with just a couple screws but no fan, no windows, no awning. It was just a body with some equipment inside and covered with stainless steel. We’d have to rebuild it completely.”

Meni, who had been a subcontractor for Koppelman until they had a falling out in 2016, said he was not surprised.

“I hear about many people who [say Koppelman] didn’t finish their trucks, and I know of a few myself,” said Meni, who has worked on some of those trucks. “I feel so bad for [Foxman] that that happened.”

‘Good luck collecting’

The Fox & Son filing joins a crowded field of legal battles for Koppelman, who has been involved as a defendant or plaintiff in at least a half-dozen lawsuits over the last few years, including several related to a 2016 fire at USA Mobile, Koppelman’s first garage and commissary in Brewerytown, where 30 food trucks parked and prepped their food.

Whether Foxman can expect compensation for her own case if she wins is dubious.

Koppelman filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection from creditors for Industrial Food Truck in August 2020, claiming just over $112,000 in assets to cover over $800,000 in debts, disastrously declined revenue fallout from COVID-19, a two-month deficit in paying rent and a long list of creditors (including his mother).

The bankruptcy was dismissed by the court in November, but nonetheless capped a three-month freeze on legal action that lawyers of Koppelman’s adversaries have regarded as a delay tactic. The move spurred Kiamichi to drop its lawsuit because, its lawyer conceded, “financial recovery was unlikely.”

That’s because Koppelman has a long history of unpaid civil judgments. At least six plaintiffs have failed to collect more than $260,000 in judgments against Koppelman. Nine liens, exceeding a total of $1.5 million, have been filed against him between 2009 and 2017.

Of those civil judgments is a small-claims case in Philadelphia Municipal Court for just over $9,000 that he lost to former Chopped champ (and ex-Philadelphia cop) Diana Sabater. She sued his company in 2015, saying he leased her a defective truck with an unsafe propane tank.

According to Sabater and her lawyer, Anthony Voci (now a prosecutor with the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office), Koppelman taunted her on his way out of the courtroom: “Good luck collecting!”

Foxman is realistic in her expectations of payback but pushes forward. Her lawyer, Naomi Zwillenberg of Blank Rome, is working the case for free.

“For a lot of people I’ve spoken to, this was going to be their first business. They put their entire savings into this and it destroyed their lives,” says Foxman. ”I don’t think there’s any hope that any of us will get money back, but I want this to not keep happening to other restaurant owners and entrepreneurs.”

It’s too late for Army veteran Daniel Lee and Joe Liang of Farina Pasta. They needed the help of a Pennsylvania state police vehicle fraud investigator to convince Koppelman to let them tow their still-unfinished truck away from his garage in September 2020, despite waiting 21 months and paying Koppelman $74,420: “I quite literally bled for that money we lost,” said Lee of savings from his military service.

It’s also too late for Maureen and Dan Reese. The couple, who dreamed of retiring to run a mobile Auntie Anne’s pretzel franchise, finally picked up their $163,500 truck from IFT in April — 20 months later than promised. It drives. But after four months of use, the counter is already pulling away from flimsy walls that buckle when pressed, a shelf is too weak to hold a microwave, and the doors to the propane tank don’t function properly.

They also needed to set up a box fan next to their new generator to keep it from overheating. The problem was recently diagnosed by a specialist: Koppelman’s crew had neglected to install a tail pipe or heat shield to allow the generator’s exhaust to escape, potentially allowing dangerous carbon monoxide to recirculate inside the truck, according to a spokesperson at Cummins Power Systems in Bristol.

“All of us who have worked on the truck have experienced nausea and headaches, but we were just thinking we were just stressed,” says Maureen Reese. “Our truck is literally coming unglued as we go.”

Past patterns

Foxman did the numbers and knew a food truck would be good for her business. She researched the permitting, the parking, the logistics of operating a truck, and the fees that events would charge. And she thought she’d found her one-stop shop and mentor in Koppelman.

“I wanted my truck to be top of the line, and Gary portrayed himself as the guy that did that. He had Coca-Cola and a Rita’s truck sitting in his hangar, and showed us trucks with features that were insane — so streamlined and high end,” she said. “I only wish I spent more of my focus investigating Gary himself.”

A look into Koppelman’s past would have revealed red flags.

In 2009, Koppelman pleaded guilty in federal court to 14 counts of wire fraud. He was sentenced to 30 months in prison for failing to provide services in a scheme involving a website he ran advertising luxury bus leases. A band of teenage musicians who had flown to Ohio from California expecting to be picked up were left stranded at the airport.

Koppelman’s defense lawyer Noah Gorson claimed his client’s behavior was “not indicative of a life of crime.”

But according to court records, Koppelman had been convicted at age 21 for theft in Camden County (he was given probation, but failed to pay court-ordered restitution). He was also convicted at age 35 for passing $6,000 in bad checks (once again, he failed to pay restitution).

Foxman’s lawyers contend Koppelman’s criminal past is relevant because his tour bus scam echoes his dealings in the burgeoning food truck fabrication industry, with polished marketing efforts followed by a failure to deliver services.

Koppelman, now 53, who according to court documents has tattoos of the gangsters Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky on his forearms, is unapologetic about his jail time. He bragged in an email to client David Truskinoff (who sued Koppelman for breach of contract in 2018) that he’d “manned-up” and did his time for a “bad business decision,” likening himself to Martha Stewart, Pete Rose, Lauryn Hill and James Brown.

Koppelman was finishing his 16-month sentence for wire fraud in 2011 when the nation’s new wave of gourmet food trucks — with the allure of culinary freedom for start-up chefs at a relatively low cost of entry — was blossoming in Los Angeles. The emergence of star chefs on wheels such as Roy Choi and his Kogi Korean taco truck, surging social media, and the availability of trucks following the 2008 recession launched the mobile food craze.

Koppelman became a fixture early on Philadelphia’s budding scene. He founded the national MobileFoodNews website — which became active on Twitter in late 2010 while he was still serving his sentence. He also became one of the earliest financial supporters of the Philadelphia Mobile Food Association in 2012, though frequently butted heads with its leadership when their agenda did not align with his business interests. To this day, Koppelman claims he founded the PMFA, though the actual co-founder, Dan Pennachietti, rebuts that: “He wanted to sit on the board, but he didn’t own a truck so he shouldn’t represent trucks.”

Three former and present PMFA board members confirmed that history, though each requested anonymity for fear of reprisals, describing Koppelman as “vindictive.” Multiple customers also spoke of Koppelman’s quick temper and bullying behavior when relations soured.

“I never questioned your washed-up Broadway career have I...or commented on why you live in [a] section 8 duplex,” Koppelman wrote Truskinoff in a 2018 e-mail during a dispute over his food truck contract.

There were other incidents: “He’s seen me on the street and he’s threatened me,” said another food truck operator who asked not to be identified for fear of safety. “He’d be like, ‘Where’s my ... money? I’m going to come over there and kick your ass. I know where you live.”

Fallout from the fire

By the time Koppelman and partner Ilan Hayon opened USA Mobile in Brewerytown in 2014, just a few months after the end of Koppelman’s probation, his creation of a full-scale commissary with good parking, food storage and a professional kitchen was a legitimate draw in a city with few options. With 30 food trucks and carts parking there, it was the city’s largest commissary during arguably the creative heyday of Philly’s food truck scene. But it all came to a smoke-choked halt on June 6, 2016, when the World Wide Burrito truck caught fire and put the whole enterprise out of business, bringing several other trucks down with it.

Details of the blaze remain the source of a complicated legal battle, with multiple customers suing USA Mobile and its landlord, 3045 West Jeff, for either lack of insurance or allegations of inadequate fire-suppression systems. Koppelman’s company is suing the manufacturer of a rice cooker he alleges to be the source of the fire.

Koppelman received no insurance money for the damage because, he acknowledges, he’d inadvertently let necessary coverage lapse. It galls him that several food truck tenants have since collected insurance or legal settlements for damage, and that his former landlords sold the property to be redeveloped.

“Everybody profited from my tragedy, but nobody helped me but my family and friends,” says Koppelman, who initially hoped to remediate the USA Mobile space before the landlords forced him out.

The demise of USA Mobile, however, also put up roadblocks for multiple plaintiffs who’d been circling Koppelman with legal actions alleging of fraud. In court, Koppelman has argued that since the business no longer exists it’s incapable of paying out judgments to its victims.

Chad Wayne is a customer whose unfinished and uninsured truck was destroyed by that fire. But he says Koppelman had begun crushing his food truck hopes with frustrating delays long before the blaze. A 20-year veteran of Philly’s lunch trucks with dreams of finally running his own business, he hired USA Mobile to build a custom truck for Rebel Food in 2015 with the promise of a three month delivery.

When it was a month late, Koppelman blamed his builder for the delay: Erion Meni’s American Vending, which had been hired as subcontractor. But when Wayne checked on progress there, he was flabbergasted when one of Meni’s employees told him the work had been stopped because Koppelman said Wayne had yet to pay for it. “Maybe if you would pay the man your truck would be finished!” In fact, Wayne says he’d already paid Koppelman $61,750 in borrowed money, 95% of the total.

Meni recalls the interaction as a turning point in his relationship with Koppelman.

”From that day, I knew something was wrong here and I said I’m not working like that, I’m not that kind of person,” says Meni, who stopped working for Koppelman. He also held on to two unfinished trucks from USA Mobile because Koppelman had yet to pay him for the work. Koppelman criticizes Meni, claiming he made side deals with Koppelman’s customers.

Wayne’s investors, Theresa and Danny Stover, sued Koppelman, Hayon and USA Mobile, winning a judgment in December 2019 for the full deposit. The judge also said it was “manifestly unjust” for the defendants to “simply declare the company ‘non-operational’ without assets or income in order to escape liability.”

Hayon has settled his portion of the total but Koppelman has still not paid, says the Stovers’ lawyer Samantha Green, who added: “Gary is ... uncollectible.”

Koppelman started a new commissary and fabrication business just a few months later in September 2016 with different investors — including $50,000 from the Spina family, owners of the World Wide Burrito truck, according to Koppelman. The Spinas received $47,000 for their destroyed truck, according to insurance documents. The business was also started under a new name as Industrial Food Truck, another corporate maneuver lawyers say may make it challenging to collect against for the debts of a previous business.

‘A waste of money’

After Koppelman and Meni stopped working together, Koppelman decided to do all the truck fabrication in-house at Industrial Food Truck instead of hiring subcontractors. But the craftsmanship has gotten dismal reviews.

L. Lawrence Habbs bought a used truck from Koppelman for $40,000 in late September 2018 for Leo’s Backyard BBQ but could not get it out on the road until August 2019 due to delays in getting IFT to complete promised repairs. When he finally did, the truck shuddered and filled with fumes (”the smoke was not from the barbecue,” Habbs quipped). It only lasted one month before it essentially died with a cracked axle and snapped engine bolts. Habbs no longer had the money to fix it.

“It was a big waste of money that was all the money I had in the world,” says Habbs.

The sorry state of that truck was no surprise to Ray Berstler of Ray’s Tire and Auto in Folcroft, whom Koppelman described in a 2019 deposition as “my mechanic.” Berstler says he’s worked on about 15 used trucks Koppelman purchased in preparation for resale and that Habbs’ truck was just “worn out.”

Berstler says Koppelman ignored his advice to install a new motor on Habbs’ truck.

“He would ... say, just tune it up [for $450] when it really needed $5,000 [worth of work],” says Berstler, who recalls Koppelman telling the customer: “Your truck is fine, drive it, it doesn’t need anything.”

The endless delays at Industrial Food Truck were experienced not just by small independent operators, but by corporate clients and Koppelman’s business partners, too.

Steve Iliescu of Steve’s Prince of Steaks is listed in Industrial Food Truck’s failed bankruptcy filing as a 25% equity holder. Koppelman says Iliescu committed to a “low six-figure” investment.

But when Iliescu subsequently hired IFT to build two trucks in 2017, the relationship soured as the project dragged on for years, according to Steve’s Prince of Steaks general counsel Brian Blatstein. Koppelman blamed the delays on Iliescu’s indecisiveness on design, but also said he needed to prioritize previously committed projects from other corporate customers like franchisees of Auntie Anne’s that were financed by the same lender, the Bancorp out of Wilmington.

“Auntie Anne’s is going to be mad if I finish yours first,” Koppelman recalls telling Iliescu.

But after two years of waiting, Blatstein sounded the alarm.

“[Koppelman’s] taking this cash and nothing’s getting done, and I’m like, ‘Yo, bro, we’re all scammed and you need to come down here,’” said Blatstein, calling in a Bancorp executive to conduct a surprise visit to IFT in early 2020 to confront Koppelman. Their sudden appearance and accusations of impropriety, Koppelman says, only increased the stalemate.

It turns out that Auntie Anne’s execs were exasperated, too.

“This is beyond ridiculous at this point,” wrote one Auntie Anne’s exec in a November 2019 email to Koppelman over construction delays to Dan and Maureen Reese’s truck: “‘You don’t respond and honestly show no interest in completing this project.”

In an email reply, Koppelman blamed those delays on meddling, micromanaging, and more questions over his integrity from the Bancorp. That truck would still not be finished more than a year later.

The Bancorp, which declined multiple requests for comment on this article, finally removed Steve’s Prince of Steaks truck from IFT and took it this March to Custom Mobile Food Equipment in Hammonton, one of the nation’s oldest food truck manufacturers. The truck’s condition was “an unfortunate situation,” said Custom’s David Kyle.

“It had all kinds of holes cut into it, no insulation behind the wall, a lot of metal hanging, nothing secured down,” said Kyle, who’s seen similar work on trucks brought in by Koppelman’s former customers. “It wasn’t built or properly framed to any standard.”

What could have been

Every time Daniel Lee passes someone else’s food truck parked in Clark Park in West Philadelphia, he’s hit by a wave of sadness: “Man, that could have been us.”

And then he has second thoughts. The truck for Farina Pasta that he and partner Joe Liang paid $74,420 for Industrial Food Truck to build now sits idle at another shop, where it was towed with an inoperable motor and multiple other defects after 21 months and little evident work. It would take tens of thousands more dollars to make the Farina truck operable, says Custom Concessions owner John Berl.

But Lee is no longer certain a food truck makes sense. The industry in Philadelphia, a city already considered a restrictive place to vend, has taken a beating from COVID-19, with a total official shutdown in the early months of the pandemic that left the usual sweet spots of office corridors and college campuses barren of the usual crowds.

Lee and Liang instead opened their fresh noodle business last fall as a ghost kitchen concept using third-party delivery services out of a West Philadelphia commissary with the $20,000 they had left. Building on their modest success, they plan to open a brick-and-mortar store soon near Rittenhouse Square.

And yet, Lee can’t help but wonder how things might have turned out if they had not bet their food truck dreams on Koppelman.

“He’s right there in Southwest Philly with a great spot and a commissary where you can load up in the morning just 15 minutes from Center City. And he’s supposedly building trucks, too. How perfect is that? Until you meet him and lose everything,” says Lee, who connected with a network of other disgruntled customers through Foxman. “He has single-handedly tanked these food truck operators.”

“I’m very financially vulnerable,” says Lee, who, like many food truck operators does not have the resources for protracted legal battles.

“He purposely preys on people where he knows the recourse is going to be minimal. And that’s how he’s survived for so long,” says Lee of Koppelman, who has continued operating even as court cases have ruled against him.

Peter Teevan can attest to that. The Monmouth County-based chef of Alternative Plate paid $65,000 in deposits to USA Mobile in early 2015 to build a food truck that was never delivered before the 2016 fire shut that business down. Though the truck was not damaged in the fire, Teevan was never able to take possession of it because the title was not in his name. He never received a refund, either.

The same vehicle that Koppelman showed Teevan in 2015, according to its VIN number, was then later sold to Lee and Liang of Farina. One truck. Two customers. Nearly $140,000 in fees collected by Koppelman’s businesses. But a working food truck was never produced.

“He held me off for six months, then for eight months, and then I missed a [catering] contract I was supposed to show up at,” says Teevan. “And it destroyed me for three years.”

Teevan now operates Alternative Plate as a plant-based restaurant in Lake Como, N.J.

Koppelman says he’s been battling lymphoma since being diagnosed in May 2020, and needs surgery for a brain tumor. He declined to answer multiple questions for this article, citing the stress on his health and the challenges of keeping his business afloat during the pandemic, with the responsibility of running a commissary upon which 30 food truckers depend.

Local authorities have been aware of Koppelman’s business practices since at least 2016. Both the Philadelphia Police and Pennsylvania State Police have been involved with extracting vehicles being improperly held at Industrial Food Truck. Fox & Sons lawyers have discussed details of their case with with Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s office, which will neither confirm nor deny an investigation. Multiple sources have acknowledged taking questions from an FBI agent in late 2020 regarding their interactions with Koppelman’s food truck fabrication business but the agency declined to comment. Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office is also aware of the allegations against Koppelman, but will not comment.

Meanwhile, Rebecca Foxman and her lawyers hope their civil lawsuit will hold Koppelman accountable.

“It has taken years and years for the legal system to catch up with this guy and it still hasn’t,” says Jonathan Scott Goldman, a Blank Rome partner leading the case who previously worked at the Attorney General’s Office under Shapiro.

For Foxman, who is now unsure whether she’ll finish that truck, no matter the outcome of her case, it’s a matter of closure and doing what’s right.

“I would have made a lot of money on those corn dogs [in this truck], especially during a pandemic,” she says. “And I feel so taken. But I don’t want revenge. I’m hoping there’s something we can do to protect people from this in the future.”

Inquirer reporters Jeremy Roebuck and Craig McCoy contributed to this article.