Stainless-steel, diner-style food carts have been popping up in South Philadelphia, with bold red stop signs proclaiming $5 burgers. It’s not just a $5 burger. It’s a $5 cheeseburger with fries and a bottled drink, all for $5. Tax included. Want mushrooms or onions? Maybe turkey or pork bacon? A buck each.
And you know what? It’s a great deal. The juicy burger, about a quarter-pound of beef, is cooked to order and served on a decent bun from H&S Bakery in Baltimore. You get a just-enough portion of well-seasoned fries. The drink is a drink.
The $5 Fresh Burger Stop is two longtime friends’ reaction to the pandemic. Damon Forte and Mike Datta met more than two decades ago when Forte’s father owned Pizza Shack in South Philadelphia. “He came to this country from India and he showed up one day on our doorstep, looking for work,” Forte said of Datta. “He barely spoke English. He became like a brother to me, a part of the family. I was 17 and he was 19, and we worked together at the Shack for, like, 15 years.“
Datta stayed on to run the pizzeria after Forte left to do other things. Eventually, the Shack was sold and Datta opened food carts. When Forte’s restaurant in Bala Cynwyd, Mangia, was going through tough times, “Mikey came to help me,” Forte said.
“And I said to him, ‘I’ve got this extra cart sitting in my garage,” Datta said. “You want to do something with it?”
“I didn’t know anything about the cart business,” Forte said. “I knew about the food business. I started doing some research, and we came up with this concept of the all-American meal: cheeseburger, fries, and a soda for 5 bucks.” It opened in February 2019 at 33rd and Market Streets, on Drexel University’s campus.
Then came the coronavirus, which emptied Bala’s office buildings. After 15 years, “I lost my restaurant,” Forte said.
It was a double whammy. For a while, the City of Philadelphia would not allow food carts and trucks to operate. But over the summer, as the restrictions were eased, Forte and Datta decided to return to their South Philadelphia roots.
“We opened in front of a friend’s business at 19th and Washington Avenue and I think we sold 10 burgers,” Forte said. “At Drexel, they knew us.” The cart later moved to 1730 Washington Ave., in front of an AutoZone store.
They plugged away, adding a second cart — run by a franchisee — in deep South Philly, at 21st Street and Oregon Avenue, also in front of an AutoZone. Recently, a franchisee opened a third cart at Front Street and Snyder Avenue. Franchisees, Forte said, are typically people who work the grill at diners “who don’t have the means to go through working with the city, getting the license, getting the permits, getting the insurance lined up. “We’re all about people,” Forte said. “This is all about people.”
A fourth location is due to open soon in a yet-to-be-announced location in South Philadelphia.
Where? He won’t say. “We count tires and sneakers,” Forte said. “We come out, we see what kind of traffic is there and then we set up there for about eight, 10 hours a day for five days and we do our homework.”
He said the meals are profitable, even at the low price point.