Food trucks on and around campus serve thousands of hungry people everyday, providing quick, tasty and inexpensive sustenance for time-crunched students, faculty and staff.
The vendors serve meals from early in the morning into the evening, hawking standard Philadelphia food cart fare such as hot dogs, cheesesteaks and soft pretzels. Some also offer ethnic cuisine, including Chinese and Middle-Eastern selections, savory and sweet crepes and vegetarian specialties. A few are so popular that customers are willing to wait on the street for 20 minutes or more for a meal.
The history of lunch trucks at Penn reaches back to the late 1800s, when The Kiosk Quick Lunch Company operated this decorative, trolley car-like food caravan on campus. A precursor to today’s food trucks, the caravan was rather large compared to the current stainless steel carts and converted trucks parked curbside.
The Quick Lunch Company’s wagon was roomy enough to house a small kitchen, with storage space for food and drinks. It’s difficult to tell from this photo from 1900, but there was even enough room inside to accommodate up to 20 customers (standing) on cold, rainy or snowy days. The cart’s regular menu, written on its windows, offered fish cakes, chowder, turnovers and hot chocolate.
Forerunners to 24-hour diners, lunch wagons remained open long after most restaurants had closed for the night. The lunch wagon concept was created in 1884 by Samuel Messer Jones, a laid-off steam engine worker in Worcester, Mass. It didn’t take long for other New England businessmen to copy the idea, including 20-year-old Thomas Buckley, who revolutionized the lunch wagon business by adding stovetops so operators could cook food on site.
By 1898, Buckley was known as The Original Lunch Wagon King with caravans in 275 cities and towns across the country, including this one at Penn.
For more information on this and other historical events at Penn, visit the University Archives at www.archives.upenn.edu.
Originally published on November 17, 2011