From food truck to brick-and-mortar, Sugar Philly has always had a home
By Leksey Maltzman
Photography by JPG Photography (jpgphotography.com)
Is there anything better than walking into a bakery and taking in the delicious aroma of freshly baked macarons, cakes, and crème brûlée? If you’re craving some sweetness, look no further than Sugar Philly at 4409 Main Street.
Originally a food truck, Sugar Philly opened their brick-and-mortar location this past summer in Manayunk led by Head Chef, Dan Tang, who has been with Sugar Philly from their start in 2010.
Dan found himself in the food industry essentially by accident. While studying abroad in Rome through Temple University, he taught himself how to bake and cook to save money. His friends realized he was spending way more time cooking and thinking about food than he was with his Political Science courses and pushed him to keep following this passion.
“That was a really big turning point for me,” Dan said. “So that summer, I took a job in the restaurant industry.”
The experience he had with his first restaurant job was not what Dan hoped it would be. He found working the kitchen line to be oppressive because of the unfriendly and highly stressful atmosphere with no room for creativity.
“I walked away from it thinking I’m never going to work in the restaurant industry again!” Dan remembered.
So when his soon-to-be business partners approached him with the opportunity to start the Sugar Philly food truck, Dan was not so sure.
“I thought about it very hard,” he shared, “and decided that if I was going to go back to the restaurant industry, then I would do it on terms that were nice and friendly.”
Dan and his business partners each attended different universities in Philadelphia, but they were all interested in the Philadelphia food truck scene.
“All three of us were familiar with the food trucks on UPenn’s campus and we liked a lot of them,” Dan explained. “But we felt that there was nothing complimentary to the meal, so we wanted to go with dessert.”
Once they got Dan on board, it was time to find their truck.
“We bought a truck that was hollow,” he said. “It was a former ice cream truck, and before that it was a post office vehicle parked in front of the World Trade Center a long time ago.”
Sugar Philly’s menu changed quite a bit over the last nine years. Dan originally served a lot of $5 desserts like slices of cake and peanut panna cotta. The only thing still on the menu is their staple crème brûlée.
While running the Sugar Philly truck, Dan participated in the Manayunk StrEAT Food Festivals several years in a row. One year stood out to him in particular because the night before the event, it was snowing while he worked late to prep for the event the next morning.
“I was doing ice cream and looking outside feeling like ‘I don’t want to do this’ and ‘this is so stupid,’” Dan remembered expecting a slow day for ice cream because of the weather. He wanted to give up and throw in the towel.
To Dan’s surprise and delight, the next morning there was a line of people outside his truck before the event even started.
“It was probably one of the best ones we ever did,” Dan laughed.
“Everything we loaded on the truck was gone — it was so insane!”
Fast forward a couple of years and Sugar Philly was looking to open a brick-and-mortar location now that the food truck craze has somewhat died down.
“When this storefront came up, it was kind of like a golden unicorn situation,” Dan remembered.
One of his business partners called him to ask if he could drop everything he was doing and go see this place in Manayunk. Dan stopped baking and left the community kitchen where he was working to drive across the city to meet the realtor and see the space in person.
After months of renovations and delays, Sugar Philly opened their storefront in the summer of 2018. The new kitchen and retail space allowed Dan to expand the menu and experiment with new baking skills he learned over the years, which previously weren’t practical for a food truck operation.
“I usually say that if the store is like Taco Bell, than the truck is like Taco Bell Express,” Dan joked. “The truck has the basics like macarons, ice cream, and crème brûlées, but in the store we have all of those things plus we started doing kouign-amanns, donuts, and large format cakes.”
Dan did not even hesitate when asked what the most popular menu item is.
“The milk and honey macarons by far. A lot of people don’t believe me, especially new customers” Dan explained. “When people come back they tell me they are glad they took my recommendation. The funny thing is some people come in and act like it’s a secret!”
One of their newer menus items, kouign-amanns, which Dan describes as “sugary croissants stuffed into a muffin tin,” are growing in popularity.
“There are some people who come in and are like ‘how many do you have? I’ll take all of them,’” Dan said.
Dan is a big fan of the kouign-amanns too, even though he shared that he doesn’t really have a major sweet tooth.
“I like the kouign-amanns a lot,” he shared, “I think for me that was a new skill I learned that was pretty unique and there’s really nothing like them.”
In addition to having his own kitchen and the ability to expand their menu, Dan also found a lot of other benefits to opening a storefront, like having a supportive community of customers and other small business owners around him. Lucky’s Last Chance, Tubby Robot Ice Cream Factory, and The Eyeglass Works are a few who Dan said went above and beyond to welcome him to the neighborhood.
One time in particular, Dan forgot to lock the front door before heading home to Fishtown for the night. A customer ended up messaging him on Instagram to let him know something was wrong and Dan called his friends at Lucky’s Last Chance to help. They were able to get the spare key and lock up.
“As I thought about it more, I realized there are a couple of local customers I could have reached out to for help too,” Dan shared. “That night was kind of a sign that we were meant to be here.”