Matthew Rafferty started off in the restaurant industry as a dishwasher.
Now—25 years later—he stands behind the window of his own establishment.
It is a Sunday and Algorithm’s cobalt blue food truck is parked on the south side of the 1900 block of Washington Avenue. The truck offers an extensive vegan menu using ingredients sourced mostly from local suppliers. Philly Tempeh and Blackbird seitan for protein; a combination of Baker Street Bread Co. and Merzbacher’s bread for their sandwiches; and Càphê Roasters, a company based in Kensington, for their Vietnamese-style coffee.
“Where we can go local and where we can procure the menu by taking care of other small businesses, we should strive to,” Rafferty says. “That’s what ties the community together.”
Rafferty, alongside chef Cody Ballard, have curated a menu of plant-based sandwiches, tacos and coffees.
An on-again, off-again vegan, Rafferty has long struggled with the restaurant industry’s reliance on animal products. Consistently vegan for the past three years, his goal in founding Algorithm was to create a business ”with a little bit more compassion.”
“That’s really the driving force behind the engine,” he says. “What can we do in hospitality with more compassion?”
According to Rafferty, Algorithm seeks to solve this “equation.”
“Everything starts with a vision on how to solve a problem,” he says.
He first had the idea for the business about four years ago. But after creating a company, a business and marketing plan and working with potential partners, a brick-and-mortar store still seemed out of reach.
When the pandemic hit, the risk of starting a new business forced one of his initial partners to back out.
Undeterred, Rafferty continued to work out the financing for the truck and equipment. He purchased the truck, a 2006 Freightliner Utilimaster with a 16-foot cargo area, in Indiana and brought it to Virginia to get it outfitted into a mobile kitchen.
After the renovation, Rafferty brought the truck to Philly in June and opened up in September.
Chef Ballard has a background working in Philadelphia’s vegan restaurants, with stints at Vedge, V Street and HipCityVeg.
“The menu in its current version is his work blended in with some of my original ideas,” says Rafferty. “He’s done a wonderful job with taking the menu to the next level and bringing it into 2021.”
The truck’s customers seem to have taken notice.
Claire, a vegan, first discovered the truck in Clark Park and has been coming back for their breakfast sandwich.
“I feel like there’s not a lot of good vegan breakfast options in the city,” she says.
Sharon, a vegan from Fairmount, had also made her way to the park for breakfast after doing some Sunday errands to try the food for the first time. “I’ve been following them around online for a couple months,” she says.
Rafferty’s longtime friend and self-proclaimed harshest critic, Bob Weaver, is a fan of the truck’s cheesesteak.
“I am a cheesesteak guy,” Weaver says. “I think Mama’s Pizzeria … is one of the best, and Dalessandro’s Steaks, but Algorithm’s is right up there with it. I’m not vegan at all, but eating here is really good,” he says.
Michael Raphael, who has known Rafferty since high school in the early ’90s, has watched his journey in the restaurant industry.
“He worked in these different positions. It makes sense for him to have his own business and combine it with his passion [for] animal welfare. He gets to mix those two things together,” Raphael says.
For Rafferty, the truck is a culmination of his journey through the restaurant industry, as well as his personal journey to sobriety.
“The path for me, through the last few years, was to finally connect to sobriety,” Rafferty says. “The way that’s trickled down has gifted a lot of things, like the truck.”
Living a sober life has helped him focus on what’s important.
“It’s absolutely a priority to be able to strive to serve a vegan menu,” he says.
Alongside operating from Wednesday through Sunday at various locations throughout the city (such as Fishtown, Fairmount and Manayunk), Algorithm also does special events.
“One thing that I love about hospitality is being able to partake in people’s special events,” Rafferty says.
They recently catered a meal for Fishtails Animal Rescue that was funded by an anonymous donor. The truck has also donated some of its proceeds to Burleigh Manor Animal Sanctuary & Eco-Retreat in Maryland.
“We’re going to be doing more of those things,” Rafferty says. “That’s all part of the algorithm.”