The New Fast Food: Mobile Eateries Thrive In Pittsburgh

Dec 7, 2015

Carnegie Mellon University student Cora Wang waited for a currywurst outside a gray office building just off of Second Avenue in South Oakland.

It was her first time there for class, and she said she was pleasantly surprised to see a mobile food cart on the premises.

“Because there’s nothing here,” she said with a laugh.

Meanwhile, Sandra Friedel cooked up sausages and ground meat patties on the small flat top grill, then topped them with veggies and homemade sauces, while her husband Dustin took orders.

The couple started their food cart, dubbed Berlin Street Food, about a year-and-a-half ago. They were living in Sandra’s hometown of Berlin, Germany and had dreams of opening their own food business. When they came to Pittsburgh to visit Dustin’s parents, they decided this was the place to do it.

“We (saw) everything changing, all the food trucks coming, the mobile food scene. Pittsburgh itself was changing, so we thought this would be the best place,” Dustin said. “We chose what we were eating for the last two-and-a-half years in Germany and we wanted to bring it here.”

The Friedels’ cart is just one of dozens of mobile eateries that have been established in the Pittsburgh region over the last few years, filling voids in industrial areas with few dining options and expanding the reach of brick and mortar restaurants.

But according to City Councilman Dan Gilman, the laws that govern food trucks are outdated.

“It says you have to move every 30 minutes, which makes sense if you’re an ice cream truck at a little league field. Thirty minutes does not give you time to heat up a grill, cook and clean up,” he said.

Most municipalities in the region have similarly outdated ordnances, or none at all.

Gilman introduced a bill that would extend the time frame to four hours, allow food trucks to operate in Schenley and Frick Parks and to park at meters.

It would also more than double the license fee for food trucks, but that didn’t stop mobile eatery owners from showing their support at a recent City Council meeting.

Tim Tobitsch lives in Lawrenceville and is co-owner of Franktuary, which has two brick and mortar locations and two food trucks.

“Truthfully, without food trucks I don’t know if I would still have my business today,” he said.

Peter Landis from Brookline owns a brick and mortar restaurant in Market Square and is planning to launch a food truck focused on smoothies and fresh, healthy foods. He’s also the treasurer for the Western Pennsylvania chapter of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, and said in other cities, food trucks have helped generate economic activity in blighted neighborhoods.

Stephanie Morales of Wexford owns Las Chicas with her daughter Amanda and said they dream of owning a brick and mortar restaurant one day, and that a successful food truck is just the first step.

“We need to be able to have the freedoms to go and open up in places for short periods of time so we can acquire the funds to expand our business,” she said.

Christa Puskarich of East Liberty co-owns Leona’s Ice Cream Sandwiches with her wife Katie Heldstab. They sell their frozen treats out of a mobile cart, not a food truck, so the new rules wouldn’t even apply to them. But they’re dependent on the food truck economy.

“If we don’t have the food truck roundups and the places where we can join the food trucks to sell, then we can’t actually make our business, we can’t have more followers, more people who know about us to actually support us,” Puskarich said.

Heldstab said it’s an instance when “more is more,” and she used the Strip District as an example.

“If you walk down there on a Saturday there are pop-up locations up and down that street that are literally blocking the way into brick and mortar restaurants and every one (of them) is packed,” she said. “So (with) the restaurant and food density, that’s an obvious case study.”

At a recent food truck roundup outside the Brew Gentleman Beer Company in Braddock, customers waited for more than 20 minutes for tacos from the Pittsburgh Taco Truck, in a line that snaked through the parking lot.

When James Rich started the truck three years ago, he said Gilman helped him through the process, back when he was chief of staff for then Councilman Bill Peduto.

“He’s been a cheerleader I guess for food trucks,” he said. “I think it’ll bring more food, diverse food and definitely food that’s going to be in locations where maybe restaurants don’t have time to build up to.”

Dozens of other people waited patiently in the cold for gyros, burgers, burritos and even ice cream sandwiches.

Inside the brewery, the line for the bar was almost out the door and it was hard to move around. One man said he went there just for the beer and had never seen the place so crowded.

The popularity of the food truck roundup, even on a chilly November evening, suggests that Heldstab is right: more is more.

City Council will hold a public hearing on Gilman's proposed legislation Tuesday, Dec. 8 at 1:30 p.m.