Born in the recession, still going strong

Born in the recession, still going strong
University City District, Conrad Erb/ Provided

About six years ago, a group of businesses along Baltimore Avenue in West Philadelphia were looking for a way to introduce themselves to the large number of new families moving into the neighborhood.

The recession was nearly over, but nobody was quite sure of it.

So a committee, led by the University City District, hit on an idea.

What if everyone along the corridor sold something for $1?

It was a success. Hundreds of people turned out for what was dubbed the Baltimore Avenue Dollar Stroll to sample food from the local Thai restaurant, Vientiane, or grab a cheap beer from a local bar.

Five years after the recession officially ended, the stroll — scheduled for Thursday evening — still draws thousands of people to about 6 blocks of Baltimore Avenue in the University City neighborhood.

“In the six years we’ve been doing the Dollar Stroll, we’ve seen it grow from less than a dozen business to now more than 30,”said Lori Klein Brennan, Director of Marketing & Communications for the University City District.

Brennan said that no, there aren’t plans to raise the price point as the economy gets stronger.

“Honestly, the dollar stroll is branded as just that,” Brennan said.

Food trucks: A refuge for people charting a new path during the recession

The dollar stroll isn’t the only local business phenomenonto emerge stronger from the troubled economy.

Across the country, the amount of cash brought in by food trucks has increased by more than 9 percent per year between 2010 and 2015 to $856 million per year, according to IBIS World, a provider of industry and business data. The number of people operating trucks grew by 15 percent in 2007, at the height of the recession.

“Recessions tend to produce more entrepreneurs and sole proprietors,” said Josh Sevin, Managing Director of the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia. “There’s not as many jobs out there, so people make their own.”

In Philadelphia, many of the trucks have transitioned from just targeting the lunch crowd to offering catering services or acting as distributors for specialty foods.

Scott Kaplan, 35, opened his truck Jerry’s Kitchen in 2014 after transitioning from a career in sales.

“I decided I wanted to do something that really got me going,” Kaplan said. The truck offered him the opportunity to pursue his interests — food — at a fraction of the cost of opening a brick and mortar facility. In addition to being anchored off of Drexel’s campus for part of the year, he focuses on catering.

Rob Mitchell,the president of the Philadelphia Mobile Food Association, says the industry haslong been a refuge for people changing careers — he himself is a former English teacher that got into the business because he was looking for a cool summer job.

One truck focused on what he called a carnival menu, and another focused on cheese curds. The latter, in turn, has led to a new business — distributing cheese curds to restaurants in Philadelphia.

Co-working: Low-cost office spaces target more mature clients

In Philadelphia, co-working spaces and food trucks continue to offer budding entrepreneurs to keep their costs low or as a way for longtime business owners to introduce themselves to new customers.

There are more than a dozen co-working spaces in Philadelphia. These office spaces offer short — sometimes extremely short — rental options and dependable Wi-Fi connection.

Early spaces were bare bones environments with a post-college feel. They targetedapp developers and software coders, said Tayyib Smith,a partner at co-working space Pipeline Philly.

Pipeline, Smith says, has evolved to target startups trying to present themselves as a mature business with a national or international perspective. They’ve landed tenants in the real estate business, along with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

“I think co-working is here to stay,” Smith said.