Food truck entrepreneurs work to rescue a South Philly park
"A lot of people think of that part of South Philly as underachieving or low income and sure, maybe it is low income, but there are people that have really great skills and that's what we're trying to emphasize."
Zing Thluai sliced her signature sushi rolls and dabbed on spicy mayo sauce for anyone surveying the buffet of options outside the bright-blue food truck she shares with another chef.
Thluai, a 39-year-old Burmese refugee, could see people returning for a second helping at the "urban farm" location deep in South Philadelphia. She thought about how this was an opportunity to introduce new flavors and a bit of her culture to others. And take a step toward opening her own restaurant.
The food truck, which is one part of the community's plan to revitalize a South Philly park, has now become a symbol of entrepreneurship to other refugees and immigrants, aspiring to break out on their own.
"They question me a lot: 'How you do that?'" Thluai said. "That is already changing people's mind: 'If Zing can do that, we can do that, too."
The South Philadelphia East "SoPhiE" truck, which debuted in April, is owned by the Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Association Coalition (SEAMAAC), a Philadelphia nonprofit that seeks to revitalize Mifflin Square Park and bring back a community atmosphere that prevailed there before rival gangs had a shootout in 2015.
Thluai, who has been a Burmese outreach officer at SEAMAAC for the last five years, said she is at least three years away from saving enough money to open a restaurant, which she thinks would cost about $100,000 to start. And while she usually cooks in the truck two times a week, she is mostly using this time to perfect a menu, learn about inventory, and get name recognition throughout the community.
The food truck industry, which rang up $959.8 million in annual revenues last year, logged 7.3 percent growth from 2012 to 2017, according to the research group IBISWorld, making it one of the best performing food service sectors. Most food trucks, like this one, operate in urban areas with large populations. But the opportunity also comes with slim profit margins and lots of competition, the report states.
In Philadelphia, the food truck industry has "grown exponentially" in the last few years, said Rob Mitchell, president of the Philadelphia Mobile Food Association.
Thoai Nguyen, SEAMAAC's CEO, said the food truck can gross more than $3,000 at some events, such as opening night at the Oval near the Art Museum and Glow in the Park in Fairmount Park, or as little as $150 at Mifflin Square Park. Thluai said she needs to have at least 25 to 30 customers a day to make a profit. Her items range in price from $2 for an egg roll to $11 for her special combo of white rice, green beans and chicken or beef.
The truck is part of SEAMAAC's pitch to bring back a "vendor village" to Mifflin Square Park (bordered by West Ritner, Wolf, Fifth and Sixth Streets) by easing access to permits and training local immigrants to become food vendors. The population around the park is about 26 percent foreign born — double the city average, according to census estimates. Most immigrants in the city live in Northeast Philadelphia and South Philadelphia, and the latter area is where most Southeast Asians reside, a recent Pew study found.
With this vendor village pitch, the nonprofit won a $175,478 grant in 2017 from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation's annual Knight Cities Challenge.
"We have a lot of people that are entrepreneurial," said Andy Toy, SEAMAAC's communications director. "A lot of people think of that part of South Philly as underachieving or low income and, sure, maybe it is low income, but there are people that have really great skills and that's what we're trying to emphasize."
Using parks as business opportunities
Warm weather used to attract an open-air market with unlicensed food vendors, mostly from the Southeast Asian community. But in October 2015, rival gangs fired more than 100 gunshots around the park, leaving one man dead and two wounded. After the shootings, police shut down the impromptu food vending.
"We saw that there was vibrancy in [food] and we felt that we could bring it back in a more controlled way," Toy said. "We wanted to make sure people felt that the park was a great place to go and food is a great connector of that."
At the time, Nguyen, said he hoped the grant would inspire entrepreneurship. Since then, the nonprofit purchased the truck and pays for the propane and permits. The chefs get about two-thirds of the take on any given night, Nguyen said, while the nonprofit takes one third for operating costs.
The goal isn't to make money as much as "make people's lives better," Nguyen said.
Still, not everyone around Mifflin Square Park has embraced the food truck, Nguyen said, referencing "ethnic rivalries." Nguyen hopes to diversify the chefs to include Cambodia and Laotian vendors, among others, so those communities feel more included. The Burmese and Indonesian communities have backed the truck so far because of the current chefs, he said.
The city has about 140 neighborhood parks like Mifflin Square that are unstaffed, and about 115 have registered friends of the park groups that help with upkeep, said Kathryn Ott Lovell, commissioner of Philadelphia Parks & Recreation. SEAMAAC's project, she said, helps connect the community and "breach that social divide that is widening here in our country."
"Each park," Lovell said, "takes on the personality of that surrounding community."
'My dream is getting closer and closer'
When Thluai came to the U.S. in 2000, she lived for a few months in Washington, D.C., before moving to Edison, N.J., and working as a sushi chef at a supermarket. Ten years later, she relocated to South Philly to be closer to her sister Esther Sui, and this job is helping her send extra money back to her family in Burma.
With SEAMAAC's help, Thluai was able to get a food safety training certification so she knows what the temperature should be for cooking and storing different foods and how to prepare, handle and deliver food to the truck.
"I'm so proud because this is like presenting where we are from," Thluai said.
For the recent event at Novick Family Urban Farm, Thluai was preparing a chai rolls, made with rice, seaweed, sesame seeds, vinegar, imitation crab meat, cucumber, avocado, teriyaki sauce, spicy mayo sauce, and fried onions. Her menu also included Myanmar special green beans, made with peanuts, fried garlic, onions and cilantro, along with Burmese fried chicken, made with soy sauce, black pepper, garlic, onion and vegetable oil.
While surveying Thluai's options, Stephanie Lubert, 32 of Bryn Mawr, said to her friend: "I don't think I've ever had Burmese chicken before," and then scooped some up on her paper plate.
"It's excellent," she said. "It's savory."
Priya Ranganath, 23, of Center City, also praised the sushi. "This is so good," she said as she grabbed a second helping.
Now the mother of four kids between the ages of 5 and 14, Thluai remembers how hard it was to learn English and settle in after immigrating. When she opens her own business, she hopes to employ other refugees and immigrants to do tasks they already do at home, such as cutting vegetables, washing dishes and cleaning, while their kids are at school.
At SEAMAAC, she said, she's helped other Burmese refugees get jobs nearby and wants them to have the same feelings of pride and ownership she has after a successful night working at the food truck.
"My dream is getting closer and closer," Thluai said. "I have more confidence to run my own business."