Food trucks on campus are still struggling despite campus reopening

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Magic Carpet received a $ 5,000 grant from the city in the first round of relief fund requests.

Credit: Sukhmani Kaur

Food truck owners on the Penn campus say they are still struggling to keep their businesses alive amid the pandemic, despite the thousands of students who have returned to University City for the spring semester.

The Daily Pennsylvanian spoke to four local food truck owners about their experiences navigating the pandemic. Although the owners were hoping to see an increase in income when the University decided to welcome All of the undergraduates returned to campus in January, their economic realities weren’t much different from last semester as they struggled to attract clients and make ends meet.

“I would say 80% of our customers are students, so obviously that’s a huge change from when everyone was here, compared to now,” Leo Saavedra, owner of Tacos Don Memo , a food truck serving tacos and burritos located on 38th Street. next to 1920 Commons, said comparing their pre-pandemic situation to their current situation.

Although Saavedra said the flow of customers had improved slightly since the fall, he said it was still very difficult for the truck to compensate for the two months of the start of the pandemic when the city banned food trucks from the farm.

In March 2020, the city of Philadelphia became the only jurisdiction in Pennsylvania to cease food truck operations. Food truck owners went out of business for two months, while small brick-and-mortar businesses were allowed to continue in the delivery and take-out formats. Following the adoption of these strict restrictions, the city attempted to compensate providing a total of $ 40 million in small business relief funds, including food trucks, through the COVID-19 Relief Statewide Small Business Assistance Program. Businesses can apply to take advantage of these funds online at the city’s official website.

Ajez Uddin, the owner of the New York Famous Halal Gyro, one of the halal carts in front of the Quad, said he needed financial help from the city, but was confused by the process of applying for grants – which ultimately kept him from applying.

Yet Saavedra and owners of various other food trucks on campus who successfully applied said they still had not received a response from the city about their loan applications, which they submitted last year. .

Hemo Abdelaziz, the owner of the Hemo’s food truck, known on campus for his Hemo special sauce, said he had applied for loans from the city last year, but had not received a positive response from any of them so far. Without student loans and clients, Abdelaziz said it was difficult to move business forward.

“The situation is the same as in the last semester; there are not a lot of students here. And if I don’t start making more money, I’m going to have to close soon, ”Abdelaziz said, adding that the food truck was his only source of income.

Those who were lucky with their requests for relief funds still said the additional funds were not enough to financially support their businesses.

Like Abdelaziz, Magic Carpet food truck co-owner Debbie Varvoutis said the flow of customers in the spring semester was comparable to that in the fall.

“Each food truck on campus is still doing 20 to 30 people a day right now, which I was doing in 20 minutes,” Varvoutis said.

Despite receiving a $ 5,000 micro-grant from the city in the first round of relief fund requests last year, Varvoutis said the food truck – beloved on campus for her vegetarian fare – still struggling financially and trying to keep herself going until the fall semester of 2021. In the meantime, she said the truck will close for the extended summer period and ask for the new round of funds offered by the city and the federal government.

As part of the $ 28.6 billion COVID-19 stimulus package offered by the federal government starting in 2021, the American rescue plan will set aside $ 5 billion in aid for small businesses, including food trucks, which earned less than $ 500,000 in revenue in 2019. Grant and loan amounts will be based on the difference between 2019 and 2020 sales establishments and the first three weeks of the program will prioritize socially and economically disadvantaged small businesses.

Another thing Varvoutis said helped Magic Carpet was the GoFundMe page he published last semester and the resulting help poured in from students and alumni who supported the page following articles posted on it. . The DP and The Pennsylvania Gazette both written articles about Varvoutis’ efforts to keep the food truck running, which Varvoutis says caused students and alumni to contact her personally to make contributions.

“Whenever there is an article or [news profile] things improve a bit, but then it flows, ”said Varvoutis. “But it’s always been a help, and we’re not ready to go bankrupt just yet.”

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