SIDEBAR


In the annual scramble for on-campus housing, there are usually just a few motives at play. Some returning undergrads will do anything to secure a room near their friends. Others are drawn to residential programs, like the Interfaith Dialogue Community in Ware College House, or the Science and Technology Wing in Kings Court English House. Still others simply aim for the shortest walk to the Nursing School. But when Franklin Shen EAS’03 was looking for a junior-year dorm room, the only thing that mattered was his favorite food truck.

“I chose where I wanted to live based on Hemo’s,” Shen recalls. “It was parked near the Upper Quad gate. So I got a room in the tower of the Upper Quad gate so I could eat at Hemo’s every day.”

The same criterion governed his senior-year choice.

Though he’s an extreme example, Shen isn’t the only Penn student to fall hard for four-wheel fare. Nor is he the only alumnus of late to cross over to the other side of the counter. In January he and a partner launched a dessert truck to fill an empty niche in the University City street-food scene. “What was really missing for me when I was a student was something dessert-based,” he says. “Something for when I wasn’t too hungry, or when I wanted to conclude a meal. A fortune cookie isn’t enough.”

They hit a speed bump when their original name was contested by a clothing business with the same one; as the Gazette went to press, Shen was considering letting the truck’s Facebook fans vote on a replacement. With luck that may just add to the mystique of a food truck whose permit to roam—but not park anywhere permanently—has turned it into a modest Twitter phenomenon among sweet tooths keen on tracking its whereabouts. “We didn’t think this would be easy,” notes Shen, “but the obstacles we’ve faced haven’t necessarily been the ones we expected.”

The last year has seen a spate of Penn alums take a run down that bumpy road. Shen was the third in four months to set up shop. Drew Crocket C’05 kicked off the trend in October with Hub Bub, a 13-year-old package-delivery truck painted red as a rooster’s comb and rigged with Italian espresso machines. He sells single-varietal coffees roasted by Portland’s venerable Stumptown Coffee, and French pastries from Narberth’s Au Fournil, run by former Le Bec-Fin master baker Stephane Wojtowicz. It took all of a week for Philadelphia Inquirer food columnist Rick Nichols to proclaim that Hub Bub had “instantly raised the food-truck bar” in town.

Crockett got the idea when he was working as a trader for Deutsche Bank in New York, where trips to a nearby espresso truck became the high points of his day. He put his name into Philadelphia’s permit lottery for a truck of his own. “Penn kids eat out of trucks all the time,” he figured, “but there was nothing on campus like a truck with an espresso machine.” Time passed. He got into business school and got ready to go. Then the permit came through, he deferred his acceptance, and quickly found himself slinging cappuccinos at the corner of 38th and Spruce streets.

Crockett still plans to get an MBA once Hub Bub settles into a profitable groove. For Jeff Henretig WG’09, co-founder of Coup de Taco, it’s the other way around. Henretig worked at Goldman Sachs before coming to Wharton with entrepreneurship on his mind. His interest began drifting toward nutrition even as his lunch money trickled into the glove boxes of Don Memo’s and Kim’s Oriental. “Those were my favorite food trucks,” he says, “but I didn’t always feel too great after eating a meal from them. I wanted to create an option that was a little healthier.”

The result is Coup de Taco, which rolled up on 40th Street near Locust Walk in November. The menu mashes up the taco format with pan-global fillings ranging from chicken tikka masala to Thai coconut curry to caprese salad. Come warmer weather in spring, Henretig hopes to tap into dinnertime hunger in the high-rises. Meantime, he’s won some trade catering to Wharton students who hit him up for the details of his business plan while they wait for their orders.

“Most people doing entrepreneurship at Wharton are involved in high-tech stuff,” Henretig says. “Not many are going into brick-and-mortar businesses like this. But there are some big advantages. The start-up cost is low, so there’s not a lot of risk. It took about $45,000 to buy the truck and get everything running, and the cash flow was positive beginning on day one.”  Plus, he reckons that he’s using more of what he learned in business school than he would if he’d gone the corporate route. “From marketing to financial modeling, there’s nothing I can ignore,” he notes. “I’m everything from the janitor to the CEO.”

Henretig aspires to a chain of quick-service restaurants, but for now is enjoying the same pleasure that has come to his fellow newcomers to the campus’s street-food scene. “I didn’t expect how fulfilling it would be,” he says. “The best feeling is when you sell someone a taco, and 10 minutes later, they come back to the truck and say, ‘Hey, that was great. Can I have another one of these?’” T.P.

 

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Four-Wheel Fare By Trey Popp

Photography by Greg Benson

 

   

 

 

       
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Last modified 2/23/10