Every festival is headlined by its musical performances and Made In America is no different. From Cardi B to Travis Scott, Made In America is setting up to be one of the biggest events of the year. With that being said, no festival is complete without solid snacks and drinks. This year, Made In America is continuing its trend of bringing out the best food trucks in the tri-state area. Preparing for our trip to the city of Brotherly of Love, Def Pen Culture Editor Ryan Shepard met up with Alex Sherack of PaperMill Foods to talk about entrepreneurship, resiliency and what unique flavor his food truck will bring to Made In America. This is the first installment of Made In The Kitchen.
Ryan Shepard: I read that as a kid you took a trip to a rice paper factory that made a lasting impact that led you to enter the food business. What was that trip like and why do you feel it had such an impact on you?
Alex Sherack: I’ve always been absolutely obsessed with rice paper rolls. It’s kind of weird, but growing up my mom would chop up big plates of vegetables. She’d also cook Korean style beef and pork. If we were lucky, we’d get avocado too. Then, we’d all sit together and mix and match whatever we wanted into rice paper rolls. It’s something I never got over. I literally would eat it for lunch three or more times a week. To this day, I’ve been known to invite my friends over and have them make their own rice paper rolls.
At one point, I was doing a bit of backpacking in Southeast Asia. While I was on the plane to Vietnam, I thought, “why not send a couple of emails to random rice paper factories in Ho Chi Minh City?” During the next morning, I was picked up by a stranger and taken to a rice paper factory. While I was there, I learned so much about the product I was obsessed with. I think it made an impact on me because not only did I learn more about this product I ate all time, but I also learned about the process of emailing the factory and making my first business relationship. Moreover, I was chasing this goal of making a business out of my passion.
Before founding PaperMill, you started out at a farmers’ market in Australia. What were those first days like? Was there ever a moment when you didn’t feel that you could accomplish what you have now accomplished? If so, how did you overcome that doubt?
I had so much fun back in Australia. We started in February 2016 at a food and wine festival in Sydney. I had my dad on the grill. Meanwhile, my brother and his fiancé were working the register. Not to mention, I had my mates chopping up vegetables and making spurritos. Right before the event started, I cut my finger. It was so bad that I really couldn’t do anything. Despite that, many of my friends came out and supported my work. To this day, I remember all of them being there. I was so stoked with all the pictures and stuff they were posting online.
It was a challenging first taste of what would become my life for 2016. I had to rent vans, load and unload all of my equipment into my parent’s garage, go to farmers markets, make spurritos and crash at home. I think it was really important that I started at the bottom and learn more about the food game. All of those experiences helped me learn how to run a business. There were some moments I hit absolute rock bottom. I worked a two week festival that I spent all my savings on, which turned out to be an absolute disaster. However, at no point did I feel like my vision would not be accomplished. I just persevered. The other option was to go back to corporate work, but I wasn’t ready to do that. I just love doing what I do and I hope to continue doing it with the help of my friends and family.
How did you take your talents from Australia and Philadelphia? What is the biggest difference between consumers in Philadelphia as opposed to Australia?
Consumers in both Philadelphia and Sydney have been so warm, welcoming and excited about the new concept. In the Western world, there is definitely a push towards more fun ways of eating healthy food and consumers have reacted accordingly. There are definitely differences though! I had to learn some new lingo – like hoagie as opposed to a sandwich. I may also add a bit more protein than I used to. People definitely review more online here. I think Sydney definitely has a lot more dominant Southeast Asian food influence prevalent and Philly seems to have a stronger Italian, Israeli and Latin influence. I have had to make some changes in my business, but nothing crazy.
You’re bringing your food and style to Made In America. What do you think makes PaperMill stand out in a sea of other food trucks?
PaperMill brings a nice fresh and fun flavor to Made In America! This year, we’re rocking our spurritos bowls and hoagies. In addition, we’re now serving house guacamole, chips, and fresh watermelon lime drinks. If you try our food, you know one thing for sure. It will leave you feeling full, but not heavy. You may even want to do a little dance on the spot while eating it. Is that not perfect for a music festival?
What do you feel like Made In America brings to the city of Philadelphia each year?
Made In America showcases a range of talent from both big and local artists. I particularly think it’s great that they incorporate local acts into the lineup. It’s great to hear stories of how artists go from house shows and bars to the Made In America stage. One of the girls in my truck is a really talented lo-fi DJ. She goes by the name Jewelssea. Check her out! She tells me what’s going down. Along with that, it’s great that they curate some of the best trucks in the tri-state area to vend and showcase their food. One thing I really enjoy is the skate ramps they set up. Last year, we met some dope skaters like John Tuck and Tom Asta.
Outside of your food truck, what foods are you most excited to try at the festival? If possible, what musical acts are you excited to see?
Chewy’s Food Truck has honey sriracha wings that are to die for. El Tlaloc Truck’s tacos are my favorite right now. I also love Little Sicilian’s rice balls. You can tell that I love Philly food.
Coming from Australia, there are some acts that we simply rarely see. Big name tours aren’t as common there as they are here. I’m really looking forward to Anderson Paak! His Tiny Desk feature on Youtube got me hooked. I remember seeing Cardi B at the MMA in NYC in 2017. I really want to hear what new music she’s been working on since then. I missed Travis Scott’s Astroworld tour stop in Philly last year, I’m going to be stoked to see his set! I also want to check some local Philly artists curated by Rec Philly.
At the end of the weekend, what do you hope to take away from the festival? What do you hope others take away from PaperMill?
I look forward to having fun with my staff, seeing some artists and putting out some quality food for people to enjoy!