A Moveable Feast: Pittsburgh Food Trucks
Food trucks are not necessarily new to Pittsburgh. They’ve been parked on both the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University’s campuses for years. This summer, though, an increasing number of trucks staked their ground. To date, Pittsburgh boasts more than 10 regularly running food trucks, and many, such as the Lomito Truck, and Steer and Wheel, are new this year. “I think a lot of people [in Pittsburgh] looked at the food truck trend and said, ‘Why hasn’t anyone done this here?’”says Matt Huggins, operator of the BRGR truck.
Ricci Minella, owner of The Burgh Bites Cart, attributes the popularity of the trucks as correlating to customers’ desire for authenticity. “Food is going backwards,” he says. “People want to get more basic and go back to the roots of it, which I believe is street food. When you go to any city, and you want to get the true flavor of what they make, the food on the street is where the roots are.”
Additionally, there’s the novelty of participating in a fleeting culinary experience. “People are really excited about being at an event where they can try all these different kinds of foods, especially because many of the food trucks don’t have a brick-and-mortar business,” says Jessica Webber, manager of the Franktuary food truck.
Pittsburgh’s mobile food offerings are both innovative and rooted in regional fare. Not only does each truck have its own niche — whether it’s Paraguayan food or pierogies — but each truck also makes great efforts to provide handmade, healthy, local, and sustainable food options. Many trucks partner with local farms, while some, such as The Burgh Bites Cart, even grow their own produce.
Local foodies have taken notice and supported the city’s growing number of trucks with an overflow of positive feedback. Hoon Kim, owner of Fukuda and co-owner of the new Lomito Truck, says, “I think that people understand that food trucks provide a different type of experience. They appreciate the one degree of separation between customers and cooks. They can have conversations with us and ask us about ingredients. There’s a level of warmth there that is not like a cook in the back of the house with the server as the messenger. It is much more personal.”
The benefits of mobile food are not just limited to the customer. Food trucks also provide great opportunities for those with entrepreneurial and culinary aspirations. For many owners, it seems that their decision to start a food truck coincided with a love for food and a desire to be their own boss. “The nine-to-five job was not for us anymore. We just wanted to be our own business, and we were looking in the food industry,” says Larry Gunas, who co-owns Oh My Grill with his wife, Doreen.
For some, such as Minella, mobile food is simply a stepping stone — a transition into a possible restaurant space. “The cart was a way for me to make money going through culinary school. It took off from there, and I started doing catering. The future plan is to open a restaurant, but I’m not trying to rush it,” he says.
Food trucks can also serve as a way to expand an already thriving business, such as with Bella Christie and Lil’ Z’s Sweet Boutique, Franktuary, and BRGR. These stationary restaurants agree that there’s something to be said about bringing their food to locations filled with hundreds of hungry customers. “Food trucks were a hot topic in other cities, and they were beginning to generate a lot of buzz in Pittsburgh as well,” says Huggins. “[Richard Stern, proprietor, and Brian Pekarcik, proprietor and chef at BRGR and Spoon] saw an opening and hopped on it.”
Not to mention a huge, colorful truck with your business’ name on it is great for advertising. Kadee Lewis, co-owner of Bella Christie and Lil’ Z’s Sweet Boutique, says, “With our truck, we can get our name out in places where people are unfamiliar with us. And, sometimes, people actually take photos or videos of us as we drive by.” Despite all these advantages, mobile food isn’t only about creating revenue. The chefs truly cherish their experience cooking in the trucks. “It’s fun,” says Huggins. “I get to be everywhere, and every day is different and presents a new challenge.”
And speaking of challenges, as of late, the local laws regarding food trucks have generated just as much buzz as the trucks themselves. One of the main issues is the number of feet a food truck must maintain between its operations and nearby, established businesses. Lynne Szarnicki, owner of Pittsburgh Pierogi Truck, explains, “If you sell hamburgers, you can’t park anywhere within 500 feet of an establishment that sells hamburgers. You’re also not allowed to use metered parking spaces. The biggest problem we have with [the laws] is that trucks can only park in one spot for 30 minutes at a time. By the time we get there and set up, 30 minutes have already passed.” Like Szarnicki, many owners feel that these laws, among others instituted to protect brick-and-mortar businesses in the city, are restrictive and impractical.
The solution, it seems, lies in permits and agreements between trucks and private businesses. For special events, such as the Three Rivers Arts Festival, the city issues permits to trucks. Trucks that park on private property typically have an agreement or lease with that establishment. BRGR, for example, leases its parking lot space on the corner of Grant Street and Forbes Avenue.
Yet, change may be on the horizon. Those behind the Pittsburgh Mobile Food website, including Franktuary, are leading the charge along with Councilman Bill Peduto to push for new legislation. The website provides a wealth of information concerning the laws and the proposed changes, as well as a petition to pledge support. Webber says, “With the food truck laws, it’s really hard to find a place in the city where you won’t possibly be asked to move.”
Despite the controversy, the trucks appear to present a united front and are doing well for themselves. Webber continues, “We’ve just depended on booking private and large events, like festivals and roundups, where we work together with other trucks,” proving that in Pittsburgh, community is integral to their overall success.
If you attend any of these rallies or “roundups,” you’ll find that the aspect of community amongst the mobile food troopers stands strong. They treat one another like family, saving leftovers for each other and popping in to each other’s trucks. Szarnicki says, “We’re pretty much all friends and we do a lot of the same events, so we see each other almost every day. We help each other out, too, if we have a question about something technical, like how to keep your pipes from freezing in the winter. We all support each other.”
These food truck operators all agree that the mobile food movement is only in its beginning stages here in Pittsburgh, citing multiple contacts they already know who are starting trucks. Will over-saturation become a problem? “A lot of people are going to try it out in the coming years, but the strong will survive and the weak will fade out,” Huggins says confidently.
Ultimately, the novelty aspect of the food truck seems to provide a safeguard. At least for now, those in the industry believe that the originality and nostalgic factors of food trucks will ensure growth. Lewis says, “Food trucks have become so popular in our city and will continue to be popular because they’re unique and because they remind us of the goodie carts and ice cream trucks from our childhood.”
sign the petition: Visit pghmobilefood.com to sign the petition that supports the change of the laws concerning food trucks in the City of Pittsburgh.
We’ve gathered a few of our favorite food trucks. Find out where to find them and how to book them!
When Brian Pekarcik, chef and co-proprietor of both BRGR and Spoon, needed someone to run the BRGR food truck this past summer, Matt Huggins was the only person he could think of for the job. Since then, Huggins and his team have been bringing BRGR’s hand-crafted, personalized burgers to events all over the ‘Burgh. First, choose your patty (Angus beef, turkey, or veggie) your bun (brioche, wheat, or lettuce wrap), and then, select a combination of gourmet toppings such as “Fire in the Hole,” which includes guacamole, jalapeños, pepper jack cheese, chipotle mayo, and Sriracha, or “Shrooms,” which includes forest mushrooms, caramelized onions, provolone cheese, and mustard aioli. Add a creamy milkshake, homemade chips, fries, or slaw to your order, and you’ve entered the gates to burger heaven.
TOP SELLERS: Burgers, of course!
FUN FACT: BRGR’s food truck is the largest food truck in Pittsburgh.
PARKED @: Grant Street and Forbes Avenue parking lot, Wednesday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
BRGR, East Liberty, 412.362.2333, and Cranberry, 724.742.2333. brgrpgh.com.
Hoon Kim, owner of Fukuda in Bloomfield; Chef Damon Dlubak; and Rocio Martinez Dlubak, from Paraguay, collaborated to create the Lomito Truck, bringing authentic, fresh Paraguayan and South American food to Pittsburgh. “We wanted to feature a lot of different kinds of South American foods, like the meats, rice and beans, and sauces from Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil, and Argentina — things that you wouldn’t necessarily experience in the States. The food over there is really clean and healthy — lots of grilling,” says Kim. The trio has done a fabulous job of emulating the cuisine — as evidenced by the growing number of Lomito “addicts” that can be seen waiting impatiently in line for their foodie fix.
TOP SELLER: Lomito Completo, a sandwich made with organic, grass-fed sirloin beef from DJ’s Butcher Block in Bloomfield, topped with provolone cheese, grilled ham, mayonnaise, tomato, lettuce, chimichurri steak sauce, and a lightly fried egg with a gooey, runny yolk, served on a kaiser roll from BreadWorks.
FUN FACT: Chef Damon Dlubak is also a Level 3 Master of Wine.
PARKED @: Shadyside — Details on Ellsworth Avenue, Friday-Saturday, 11 p.m.-3 a.m.
Lomito Truck, lomitotruck.wordpress.com.
This “upscale hot dog and poutine truck” was one of Pittsburgh’s first trucks to cruise the town when it started up in 2010, and the owners’ inventive take on frankfurters continues to evolve. On the menu, Franktuary offers three different dogs: the standard New York-style all-beef dog; the “Under Dog,” made with New Zealand grass-fed beef; and the Veggie, a vegan tofu dog. No worries if you miss them on the street though. Their franks and fries are also available at stationary locations — one Downtown and one in Lawrenceville.
TOP SELLER: Poutine, the traditional Canadian dish made with French fries, doused with gravy. Note: the gravy is vegan!
FUN FACT: Soon, the truck’s offering will be completely free of corn syrup. The Lawrenceville location already is!
PARKED @: Always moving!
Franktuary, 412.586.7224. franktuary.com.
THE BURGH BITES CART
The Burgh Bites Cart’s ever-changing menu reflects what Ricci Minella calls his “food ADD.” “I’ve worked in restaurants, and in terms of cooking, it can get repetitive. I try to avoid that by switching up the menu weekly, and customers have come to expect it and appreciate it.” Minella draws inspiration from Mediterranean, Latin, and American cuisine, as well as recent road trips to food capitals such as Nashville, New Orleans, and Chicago. But what we love most about this cart is Minella’s ultra-fresh approach to food. “We do gourmet sandwiches, soups, and salads using a lot of fresh produce that we grow in our backyard garden,” he says. “It’s cool to serve people food that we picked that morning.” Be on the lookout for a more stationary venture from Minella. As we interviewed him, he was busy making plans to check out restaurant spaces!
TOP SELLERS: Bacon-wrapped, deep-fried hot dogs; Calabrese zucchini salad; Caprese sandwiches on homemade bread; and Cuban sandwiches, made with Minella’s special pulled pork recipe.
FUN FACT: Minella recently served as host and head chef at the Farm Dinner, a rustic, five-course Italian dinner for 100 guests, held on Grandview Avenue in support of Friends of Grandview Park.
PARKED @: Henderson Brothers Insurance Company Downtown on Thursday for lunch; Walnut Street in Shadyside, Friday-Saturday, 11 p.m.-3 a.m.
The Burgh Bites Cart, 412.302.7059. facebook.com/theburghbitescart.
BELLA CHRISTIE & LIL’ Z’S SWEET BOUTIQUE
The owners of Bella Christie & Lil Z’s Sweet Boutique saw an opportunity with the increasing popularity of food trucks in Pittsburgh and decided to “jump on the bandwagon.” It’s been almost a year since the truck, launched through Kickstarter.com, started selling the brick-and-mortar bakery’s unique desserts on wheels. Co-owner Kadee Lewis says, “We are not a cookie-cutter, factory bakery. We can make anything, and our goal is to make our customers dreams come true for whatever they’ve envisioned for their event, whether it’s a wedding, work event, or festival.”
TOP SELLERS: Chocolate-covered bacon, and cake pops.
PARKED @: Always moving!
Bella Christie & Lil’ Z’s Sweet Boutique, Aspinwall. 412.772.1285. asweetboutique.com.
PITTSBURGH PIEROGI TRUCK
When Lynne Szarnicki started her online pierogi business in 2004, she had no idea that she would eventually be selling her handmade pierogies, stuffed cabbage, and Haluski (pan-fried cabbage, noodles, and onion) from a food truck. “My husband and I started doing farmers markets, where we would go set up a tent and then have to take everything down afterward. A food truck just made sense,” she says. Quickly, Pittsburgh Pierogi Truck became one of the city’s favorites, partly due to its niche food items and also thanks to the love that goes into making and eating them. Says Szarnicki, “We hear all kinds of stories about everyone’s grandmas. It’s like a connection to the past. You can eat and love the pierogies, and remember your family members who made them for you as a child.” And there’s a bonus for those who just can’t get enough —the truck sells frozen pierogies to enjoy at home.
TOP SELLER: Potato and cheese pierogies.
FUN FACT: The interior of the truck was designed and constructed entirely by Szarnicki’s husband, Dave Rau, over the course of the year.
PARKED @: Always moving!
Pittsburgh Pierogi Truck and Zum Zum, LLC. 724.337.7030. polishpierogi.com.
This food stand had us at “Nutella.” Ilmir Akhmetzyanov started PGH Crêpes in 2013 after working the concession business for many years. “I was looking for something unique that no one else was doing, and I was inspired by my mother who used to make crêpes,” he says. Whether you seek sweet or savory, PGH Crêpes has your back with desserts and snacks prepared with homemade crêpe batter and fresh ingredients. Says Akhmetzyanov, “As long as people need us, we’ll be in business.
TOP SELLERS: Sweet: strawberry, banana, and Nutella; Savory: chicken, ranch, and veggie.
PARKED @: Liberty Avenue and Fifth Avenue, Tuesday-Wednesday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; Strip District, Saturday-Sunday.
PGH Crêpes, 412.251.3227. facebook.com/pghcrepes.
OH MY GRILL
For some, grilled cheese is just butter, bread, and cheese, but to Oh My Grill owners Larry and Doreen Gunas, grilled cheese is an opportunity to create a unique and gourmet dining experience. “Being in the food truck industry, you have to be different,” says Doreen. The duo makes the OMG-worthy grilled cheese sandwiches using real butter, freshly baked bread without preservatives, and all-natural cheeses, pairing the sandwiches with complementary dipping sauces. “Nothing is served straight from a store-bought bottle; it’s fresh,” says Doreen. Be sure to check out the truck’s newest creation, The Sam and Suzy Grilled Cheese, complete with buffalo chicken breast, Monterey Jack and cheddar cheeses, and spicy ranch dipping sauce. “We’re always testing and creating new sandwiches,” she says.
TOP SELLER: The Number One, made with smoked gouda cheese, white cheddar cheese, caramelized onions, and bacon, on white or wheat bread with chive cream dipping sauce.
FUN FACT: Feeling creative? Oh My Grill allows customers to create custom sandwiches — vegetarian options included! — with the dipper of their choice.
PARKED @: Always moving!
Oh My Grill, 724.996.3955. ohmygrill.com.