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Driving Toward a Kosher Business

August 13, 2014 By:
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Penn Hillel students inspired Troy Harris (left) and Kareem Wallace to open their own business.

Troy Harris arrived at the University of Pennsylvania Hillel one morning in October 2008, ready for another day of preparing food in the kosher dining hall, when his boss stopped him at the door. Harris’ house in South Philadelphia was on fire, he said.

Harris rushed home to find that his wife and six children were fine, but almost everything they owned had been destroyed.

A Penn student asked Harris whether his employer was going to do anything to help. Harris, a Muslim who had been working at the Hillel for a decade, asked his boss.

“We can maybe do a food and clothing drive, but no guarantees,” Harris recalled him saying.

The Jewish students, who Harris said are “more than customers,” didn’t like “no guarantees.” One of them started a petition to Aramark, which was providing the food service at the time — arguing that the company was turning its back on Harris, who was living in a Red Cross shelter.

It worked. Aramark provided Harris with kitchen supplies, appliances, clothing, bedding and $500. (An Aramark spokeswoman said she did not have information on his case since the corporation has not worked at Penn since 2009 but “as a company, we frequently support our employees.”)

Long since back on his feet, Harris, 39, still works at Hillel’s Falk Dining Commons and often talks with students at Shabbat dinners. He enjoys “how everyone is equal,” he said.

For the students, helping him recover from the fire was not a one-and-done act of kindness but rather the beginnings of a teach-a-man-to-fish sort of tzedakah.

Now they are helping Harris and fellow Hillel cook Kareem Wallace, a 33-year-old Christian who is also close with students, start a kosher vegetarian food truck in the area. The students used crowdsourcing, collecting more than $40,000 through the website Tilt.com, to help the two men start their business.

In turn, the cooks want to not only provide jobs for others from Philadelphia’s low income-communities but also fulfill the most basic needs — food, conversation, friendship — that Penn students have come to count on from them.

“The kosher dining hall has always been such a friendly place to go, and students and cooks have always talked and known about each other’s lives,” said Eliana Machefsky, who this spring graduated from Penn, where she was a frequent diner at the Hillel, organized the funding campaign for the food truck and tried to help the cooks in other areas.

For example, until the Hillel students got involved more than a year ago, Harris, Wallace and the other cooks said they were not receiving the paid sick or vacation days that they had earned. According to the Penn Student Labor Action Project, Harris and Wallace earned $12.95 and $10.81 an hour, respectively, while staff in similar positions with similar experience who were directly employed by Penn earned between $15 and $17 an hour. Harris and Wallace said the Hillel staff was afraid to speak up, thinking if they asked about the time off or other issues, they would get fired.

But then the cooks started attending meetings of the labor action group, which included Machefsky and other Jewish students. With the group’s help, they joined the Teamsters union.

After the union negotiated a new contract last summer with Bon Appetit, the food service company that had replaced Aramark, they received raises, paid time off and are no longer “at-will employees,” meaning they could be fired without cause. Not only did the students’ efforts benefit Harris and Wallace, but the union now has 142 members from food services around the campus.

In the process of fighting for better wages and conditions, Wallace said, they learned a lot about business and decided they wanted  to shift the paradigm by becoming their own bosses and opening the food truck. They also hope to employ other people from low-income communities, said Wallace, who dropped out of high school but received encouragement from students when he went back to earn his GED a decade ago. He is also the father of five children and three stepchildren.

On July 28, Machefsky went with the cooks to the Wharton School of Business to meet with a professor who is helping them acquire a business license for the truck, which they intend to call Grassroots, reflecting the nature of their fund­raising.

They still need to buy the vehicle and secure a kosher kitchen — possibly at a synagogue — where they can prepare the food. Though the business is not yet a certainty, they hope to open their pasta-and-panini-focused operation by the end of December, which would circulate near Drexel University’s campus.

Asked why they would opt for a kosher venture, which comes with added expenses and responsibilities, Harris and Wallace both said it was a natural choice. They have both been working in a kosher kitchen for more than a decade, they said, so they know a thing or two about separating milk from meat. And when they proposed making the truck kosher vegetarian, their supporters from Hillel and elsewhere thought it was a great idea, said Wallace.

Harris also said they believe in the ideas behind kashrut. “I really want to spread the Jewish values that I learned working in the Jewish community for years. That’s what I call family,” he said.

Machefsky, 23, who grew up in a modern Orthodox household and is moving to New York to start a Jewish studies program, sees the truck — and the students and cooks’ cooperative relationship — as driving in the opposite direction of the often hypercompetitive climate at Penn.

“That focus on others, that love for others is something that’s really lacking at Penn and in the world,” she said. Connecting with Harris and Wallace “really brought that for me.”

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