As I opened my container, the savory smell of pulled pork smothered in barbecue sauce filled my nostrils. The sandwich before me — a large bun with a heaping pile of pork and vinegar cole slaw, topped with barbecue sauce — sat next to two scoops of homemade mac and cheese. I was ready to dig in.
Was I in Memphis, Tennessee? Austin, Texas?
Nope. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. On the side of a curb, next to a food truck, staring down the side of the Cathedral of Learning.
Lyle Humphrey, who is married to Senior Vice Chancellor Kathy Humphrey, opened Big Poppa’s Home Cookin’ Food Truck in July, serving up southern comfort food such as ribs, pulled pork, mac and cheese and more from his large white truck parked on Bigelow Boulevard. Humphrey’s is the latest addition in what has become a community of food trucks, joining India on Wheels and Pad Thai Express across the street from Soldiers and Sailors.
“I’m learning every day about this food truck,” said Humphrey, the owner and head chef of Big Poppa’s. “That is the fun part of it. I’ve worked in restaurants and hotels, I’ve owned a restaurant, but this has been a really great experience so far.”
As part of Bill Peduto’s mayoral campaign, he vowed to make Pittsburgh more accomodating to food trucks by rewriting the city’s strict rules on their operations.
The Pittsburgh Mobile Food Coalition, a team of 14 of the city’s mobile vendors advocating for lax food truck laws since 2012, identified three particular city laws on its website that hurt its business: the vendors cannot park within 500 feet of a restaurant that sells similar cuisine or in any metered locations, and they can’t remain stationary for more than 30 minutes. These are the city’s official laws, yet Peduto’s “hands off approach” to growing the industry has avoided ticketing licensed vendors, allowing vendors like Humphrey and India on Wheels chef Jay Amin to create a home on Bigelow Boulevard.
Humphrey used to own and cook for a restaurant in St. Louis, Missouri, before he and his wife moved to Pittsburgh 11 years ago. Now he wants to share his passion for food — specifically barbecue — with the students whom his wife has worked with over the past decade.
It took six months for Humphrey to obtain his parking permit, but now that he’s settled in, he’s enjoying the flexibility of his newest occupation.
“If you ever want to change cities, you can’t just go and pack up that brick and mortar,” Humphrey said in the back of his truck while preparing grilled salmon, the special that day. “I can pick this up and move. It also provides a vehicle for catering. So I have a vehicle, and I have what I need in here. If something has to be cooked real quick, we can do that.”
Amin also weighed in on the benefits of operating a food truck as opposed to a traditional restaurant.
“As a chef in a restaurant, the chef is always in the back,” Amin said. “On a truck, I’m right in front of everything. I get to interact directly with the customers, create a relationship with them, and I think that is really important. They give you their feedback, and you can implement the feedback right away on the spot.”
India on Wheels has been parked on Bigelow for nine years, but has operated for more than 18. Humphrey is aware of the reputation India on Wheels and others have established within the Pitt community, but the newcomer isn’t worried about the heavy competition.
“The thing you’ve got to remember about food is, food is a comforting thing, so everybody sort of has their niche when it comes to food,” said Humphrey. “For instance, the Indian trucks specialize in chicken and lamb. The Thai truck is mostly food that you’re going to put over rice. Everybody’s food is good, I’ve had everybody’s food. I like all of it. But there are just little differences. Like me, I have pork. Everyone’s got something different that they enjoy.”
Amin agrees with Humphrey, whom he sees more as a neighbor than a rival.
“I don’t see it as competition, but rather, the more trucks the better,” added Amin.
Big Poppa’s Home Cookin’ has already been successful among students as well.
“The barbecue pulled pork was restaurant quality,” said Luke Adams, a sophomore finance major at Pitt. “But overall, it’s just nice to have some added variety from the food trucks here on Bigelow.”
Overall, Humphrey is excited about the opportunity in front of him, and he feels fortunate to be at a location where he can make Pitt students happy for years to come.
“I’ve fed a lot of students at my house, a lot of Pitt students,” said Humphrey, referring to the time when his wife served as Dean of Students. “So over the years, some of them I have really gotten to know, so for me this was a natural location. Also, I think it’s a good spot just in general. If you stay around young people, you stay young.”