Night Time is the Right Time for Mobile Vending in Philadelphia

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This blog post is part of a series on mobile vending, and is based on a presentation to NLC’s Big Ideas for Small Business Peer Network on Philadelphia’s Night Market. Thank you to Diana LuDirector of Partnerships and Outreach for the 10,000 Small Businesses Program, Philadelphia Department of Commercefor assistance with this blog post. 

In spring 2013, Masters of Public Policy students at The George Washington University conducted research on local policy options for food truck regulations for NLC. This report will be made available to NLC members as a policy toolkit in the coming months.

Philadelphia is a “city of neighborhoods,” and a city with a diverse, local food scene. To highlight both of these attributes, the city worked with the Philadelphia-based nationally recognized non-profit The Food Trust to create Night Market Philadelphia.

The Night Market is a traveling food event highlighting Philadelphia’s premier ethnic and regional restaurants and food trucks. It’s also a citywide economic development and community engagement initiative that could serve as a model for other cities that want to use mobile vending to bring greater visibility to their local food scene and showcase their neighborhoods as hotbeds of cultural and social activity.  Night Market events are generally a mix – about half and half – of food trucks and tent vendors.

Beginning in 2010, Night Market Philadelphia has grown from a modest street food festival with 4,000 attendees and 18 mobile vendors to an immensely popular event with over 55 vendors that attracts upwards of 20,000 people to each of its neighborhood locations. Participating neighborhoods include those in close proximity to or directly in the central business district, such as Chinatown, University City and Northern Liberties, and neighborhoods that are more removed from the city’s core such as Mt. Airy.

The benefits to the mobile vendors in participating in Night Market Philadelphia are obvious – increased patronage and greater visibility of both their product and brand. But there are also tangible benefits for neighborhood brick and mortar restaurants.

In addition to the opportunity to increase their customer base, Night Markets give restaurants the opportunity to dip their toes in the mobile vending waters, so to speak, and experiment with expanding their reach through the mobile vending marketplace. Brick and mortar businesses can do a “pop-up” mobile shop (vending under a tent) for the event by obtaining a special event permit. Restaurants can also participate by staying open later and/or debuting special menus for the occasion.

The Night Market empowers small business owners with skills, resources and entrepreneurial opportunities that extend well beyond the event. For mobile vending first-timers, The Food Trust has offered workshops on best practices that include recommendations for how many staff to have on hand, how many portions to plan for, etc. The Food Trust also recommends that individual items be priced at $5 or less to give people more incentive to sample different types of cuisines.

Host neighborhoods also realize benefits from the Night Market. Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods, but it can be difficult to get visitors to venture out of the core downtown districts. Night Market Philadelphia provides that opportunity. The events have a great deal of marketing power for neighborhoods, and allow them to showcase their best assets.

Going Mobile at Night: Lessons Learned

For other cities that may want to try their hand at doing something similar to Night Market Philadelphia, the big takeaway (surprise, surprise) is that planning is key. Crowd control, traffic management, trash pick-up and having enough volunteers on-hand are key components of successfully pulling off an event of this scale and scope. Neighborhood buy-in is another key strategy for success. For each Night Market event, The Food Trust works with neighborhood community development corporations in the planning process, and reaches out to non-participating businesses in the area to make sure they are aware of the event.

Is your city planning something similar to Night Market Philadelphia, or perhaps already doing it? We’d love to hear from you! Share your experiences and your general thoughts on the pros and cons of food trucks in cities in the Comments section or email