COVID did not halt this food truck from cruising

Marisse Panlilio runs a food truck selling Filipino snacks in Jersey City. Photos courtesy of Marisse Panlilio

By Cristina DC Pastor

The Filipino culture of snacking inspired Marisse Panlilio to launch her food truck in Jersey City, New Jersey. Snacks like peanuts or pork rinds are comfort food that evoke nostalgia and connect Filipinos to a past that was pleasurable and familiar. While snacks are usually eaten between meals, some Filipinos snack even right after a heavy meal. 

Marisse knew this when she opened Popsie’s Truck in 2016. Popsie’s – more of a van than a truck —  contained an assortment of snacks Filipinos are familiar with: Kuchinta or steamed rice cakes, Empanada (chicken or beef), Taho or bean curd with syrup and sago pearls, Halo-Halo or crushed ice with milk and caramelized fruits, Lumpia Shanghai or egg rolls, Ginataan or dessert made with coconut milk, exotic ice cream, and the ubiquitous Boba Tea. 

Years of “brainstorming” with her mother, Juliet Oberlin, gave birth to the idea of opening a food truck business.  Mother and daughter loved to cook together and experiment on their own recipes. Popsie’s Truck sold some of the snacks they concocted as a team. 

“When I arrived in the U.S. in 1981,  I opened a deli and food bar in Roselle Park in New Jersey. It’s very American,” said Marisse. “I’ve always been into food.”

The restaurant closed after a year and a half when she landed a 9 to 5 job at a shipping company. While she followed an uneven career path that took her to home health care, concert producing, and apartment rentals, food was a passion she always wanted to return to. Marisse, 68, is also a concert technical director and deejay known in the Filipino community as Popsie.  Her partner Cosette is called Momsie.

The food truck was an homage to her mother because they talked about food and cooking and eating — a lot. Food was a bond they shared. She would visit Mama Yette in an adult community in Rahway, New Jersey and they would cook together while they talked  about family, who came to visit, and how everyone was doing. 

“She would tell me, ‘open a small restaurant, a hole in the wall.’ I said rent is tough, Ma, plus utilities,” she recalled.  

Taho, or bean curd with caramel syrup and sago pearls, is one of the Popsie’s Truck’s bestsellers. It’s a popular treat among Filipinos as they watch the Superbowl or the Oscars.
Halo Halo is the Filipino version of shaved ice dessert. 

When Popsie’s Truck opened its doors, it joined Jersey City’s fast-rising village of over 100  food truck operators, according to  Within days of aggressive postings on Facebook with enticing photos, the business took off. People began calling Marisse for orders to be picked up usually after coming home from work. 

Her mother died in 2019, the business already in full swing. Marisse had bought a truck, enrolled in a ServSafe course on food handling and sanitation, and registered the business with the local government. Because she also ran a printing business, she carefully designed and crafted her logo which shows Marisse looking like a boss lady with arms folded and wearing a track suit. 

“Social media helped me a lot,” she said. “(The business is) gonna be seven years old and we’re still here.” 

It’s “grassroots marketing,” said Marisse of her business. “I don’t have a menu because I wanted the food to be different every day.  I want them to crave for it. I want them to ask,  ‘Popsie, what do you have tonight?’ And that’s how my food truck evolved.”    

The truck opens in late afternoon and serves customers into the night. Business peaks on nights when there is a Superbowl, a Miss Universe pageant or the Oscars on television. Popsie’s is a hit at viewing parties. Sometimes, she is hired at wedding parties to serve Taho.

The truck is parked just outside her apartment so there is no big overhead to worry about. No roaming around and finding the perfect spot in parking-jammed Jersey City. Customers simply call or text and schedule a time to pick up their orders. 

Regular customers come from Jersey City where there is a big Filipino American community of about 16,000. Orders also come from residents of New York City, just across the Hudson River, and other parts of New Jersey.

When the pandemic erupted, the business ground to a halt. People stayed home and Marisse found herself cooking food with no customers to sell to. 

“I don’t want any food wasted. My mother instilled that in us,” she said. 

Popsie’s Truck is  Marisse Panlilio’s homage to  her mother Juliet Oberlin who passed away in 2019. 

She went to locations around New Jersey that are frequented by Filipinos, like a Costco or an Asian food store. She would park her truck outside or, if she knew the owner, she would set up a table inside the store. Some of her loyal customers would follow her there. New customers would be happy to see her selling traditional Filipino snacks not available in any American grocery store. At least 10 customers in one location would be considered good business for the day because they usually bought food for an entire family or fed visiting friends.

“Pop-ups are OK,” she said. “I don’t worry about rent.” When the truck is not around, people look for it, which makes Marisse very happy. 

She said she was totally unprepared  for the pandemic. “It was scary because we didn’t know what we were facing.” She was disappointed too because Popsie’s Truck had found its momentum and all of a sudden the coronavirus stopped it in its tracks.

But Marisse was consoled by concerned customers who continued to call and message her  asking how she was doing. “It’s very heartwarming,” she said.

Marisse said she did not apply for COVID-related financial assistance.

“I did not apply for the business,” she said. “I didn’t have a lot of expenses anyway.  I owned my trailer, and I don’t have a storefront.” All she got was a $1,400 stimulus check  from the federal government.

During the pandemic when business was slow, she enrolled in a baking and pastry class at Culinary Arts Institute of Hudson County Community College in Jersey City. She got her certificate on February 14 this year. Since then she has been experimenting with new flavors, ingredients, and cooking techniques. Her customers noted how the dough of her Empanada has a different taste.

After almost three years, she has a different view of the pandemic. 

“The pandemic was a big deal. I was able to reinvent myself,” she said, recalling how her mother drilled into her head that “patience is a virtue” and food is where she belongs. 

This story was produced as part of the Small Business Reporting Fellowship, organized by the Center for Community Media and funded by the NYC Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment.

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