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Cold call: Why this truck is offering free coffee in Philadelphia

Justworks, a New York start-up providing benefits, payroll, and human resources services for small businesses, will spend the week in Philly trying to raise its profile by offering free cold brew.

Philadelphians seemed more enthusiastic about the free cold brew than the small-business support services New York-based start-up Justworks has rolled into town for the week to promote.
Philadelphians seemed more enthusiastic about the free cold brew than the small-business support services New York-based start-up Justworks has rolled into town for the week to promote.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA

In two shades of blue — navy and cerulean — and a strawberry red, the truck stood out not only because of its drab oyster-colored backdrop — Philadelphia's City Hall — but because it was the only thing parked on the southwest corner of Dilworth Park.

And because of two words emblazoned in all caps on its sides: FREE COFFEE.

Oh, are Philadelphians pushovers for free coffee. Granted, it was cold brew served over ice at midday Monday when the temperature was in the knee-weakening, sweat-inducing-even-without-activity mid-90s.

But still, people that weren't even sure they liked what was being offered lined up for a taste.

"I never had iced coffee in my life," said Arlene Reynolds, 66, a retiree from the School District of Philadelphia, where she was a supervisor of food service.

Not that coffee really has anything to do with the business behind the truck. New York-based start-up Justworks has permits to park in three locations throughout Center City through Friday as an experiment in market expansion that, depending on results here, it might repeat in other cities.

>> READ MORE: Roving food truck will tap into nostalgia for former Philadelphians

Founded in 2013, Justworks provides an outsourcing option for small businesses for essentials that aren't part of the core mission, such as payroll, benefits, human resources, and compliance, and are often too time-consuming or complex to do in-house.

Justworks counts more than 40,000 employees on its technology platform, from businesses with two to 125 workers, said Camilla Velasquez, senior vice president of product and marketing. An aggregation business model that pools all employees of its customers gives Justworks leverage in negotiating more favorable pricing with insurance carriers and other service providers — even fitness centers — that normally wouldn't be available to, say, a 10-employee  company, Velasquez said in a phone interview last week about her firm's plans to roll into Philly with a caffeine-oriented customer-building plan.

"We just thought it would be a unique idea," she said, one that Justworks announced through social media and in emails and post cards to customers it already has in Philadelphia.

Judging from the reaction of dozens who bellied up to the coffee window of the truck in Dilworth Park from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday, Justworks' first day in town seemed a complete surprise — and a mystery.

"I've heard of WeWorks," Leslie Allen, a lawyer for Women Against Abuse, said when a member of the Justworks sales development team approached her as she and colleague Deborah Culhane paused by the coffee truck. (Actually, the name of the coworking space to which she referred is singular, WeWork.) Their Philadelphia-based nonprofit of more than 100 employees uses a giant in the management-services space, ADP, a publicly traded company.

Taking a sip from part of the swag Justworks handed out — an environmentally friendly ceramic mug with rubber lid — Allen gave the beverage and the branding initiative positive reviews.

"I like the coffee. I like the idea," she said, endorsing Justworks' target market. "I used to work for a start-up. This was exactly what we needed because our boss was doing payroll, and HR. It was a mess. This would have been helpful."

She and Culhane headed off to their offices on South Broad Street without a commitment to pursue any business relationship with Justworks.

Tom Marren, a software developer for renewable energy start-up Inspire, with offices in Philadelphia and Santa Monica, Calif., said his company uses TriNet for the services Justworks is offering and didn't see a need to change vendors.

"TriNet is really good," Marren said, a cup of cold brew compliments of Justworks in hand. He did not know what Justworks did until a reporter told him.

Howard Dunetz, a real estate investor from Ambler, wasn't sure, either, despite a list of Justworks' services on the coffee truck.

"I don't know what it's about, but I got a coffee and I got some mints and a nice container," Dunetz said with a smile.

The most enthusiastic review came from 18-year-old Anjali Berdia, an intern in the public defender's office.

"Frankly, this coffee really brightened my day," said the rising sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, where she's majoring in English. She complimented Justworks' marketing materials as "very clear and aesthetically pleasing."

John Pontry was impressed, too. Although the 23-year-old from South Philadelphia, a process server and bicycle courier, said he doubted the offering would significantly raise awareness about Justworks.

"People like me kind of just go for the free benefits rather than listening to the company and what they do," Pontry said, adding that the coffee was "delicious."

The credit for that goes to a Philadelphia small business, Brûlée Catering, expecting to provide Justworks with 500 to 750 cups of coffee a day for its five-day klatch this week (at Sister Cities Park 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, and Spruce Street Harbor Park from 2 to 7 p.m. Friday), said Brûlée's Heather Kirby, operations manager of Dilworth Park.

Who handles payroll and other back-office functions for Brûlée? "We use ADP," Kirby said.

André Ferreira, a Justworks sales development associate in Philadelphia for the week, was taking Day 1 in stride.

"You can't win all battles," he said as the truck was packing up for the day Monday. "But if you can stay on [businesses'] radar, I think that's a win."