Food Trucks Earn a Prime Parking Spot in Campus Dining

By using flexible equipment to make high-quality, innovative menu items, college foodservice operators continue to take their shows on the road.

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Before Rutgers’ Knight Wagon hit the campus streets, the university spent considerable time researching the menu.Food trucks have hit the college campus scene, and they’re on a roll. Literally. The National Association of College and University Food Services estimates there are at least 100 food trucks operating on campuses around the country, but spokesperson Rachel Warner predicts that number will continue to climb.

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“The trend is definitely growing in this sector,” Warner says. “Colleges and universities are using food trucks as a new opportunity to serve the customer in different ways, including meeting their customers out in the places where they may not be able to have a more traditional retail or residential dining option. Basically, food trucks allow for more flexibility in serving customers, and they can be used as an opportunity to pilot more innovative or creative foods.”

The University of Montana’s director of dining services, Mark Loparco, also sees the trend growing. “The success food trucks are having in the major cities across the country is having a direct influence on college campuses,” he says. “Our students are very familiar with food trucks from the urban areas of the country where they live or have traveled.”

These mobile units can also serve as a replacement for more traditional foodservice outlets undergoing major renovations. This was the case at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where the campus closed Berkshire Commons. “Now, we just park our two food trucks outside a busy area, and it makes up for that,” says Ken Toong, executive director of auxiliary enterprises at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst (UMass).

UMass serves more than 28,000 students, 12,000 of whom live on campus. The 2 trucks – Baby Berk and Baby Berk 2, both named after the dining hall – feed about 1,000 students and rack in a whopping $10,000 a day. “The students don’t want a buffet as much anymore,” Toong says. “They would rather go to a food truck when it’s convenient for them and get a package of fresh food. They like the upscale sandwich and the atmosphere of the truck – to them that’s more value than all-you-can-eat.”

The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) had the same reasons for developing its food truck, which will open by the fall of 2013. “With the student center and the largest retail location on campus closing this summer for renovation, we had to come up with a solution to feed people for the next two years and looked outside the traditional brick-and-mortar setup,” says Leigh Priecko, area marketing coordinator for Sodexo, which manages the dining services at UAB, a campus with about 11,000 undergraduate and 7,000 graduate students.

The University of Montana had a similar agenda. “Instead of investing in a renovation of a fixed location on our West campus, we opted to buy a food truck so we could expand our menu and offer a much wider variety to our students,” says Loparco. After filling up at the satellite location on the main campus, Montana’s Galloping Griz truck then travels back out to feed underserved students on the west side.

Convenience is also a huge selling point when it comes to food trucks. “College campuses are the perfect setting for food trucks in that regard,” says Pierre St-Germain, associate director of dining services for Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). “Our students are busy in the studios, and they want something portable without having to sit down for a long time.”

Mastering the Menu

Survey, test and test some more. That seems to be the best method for ensuring food truck menu success among student customers.

“We tried to test the menu as much as possible before we went live on campus,” says Nick Emanuel, assistant director of Rutgers Dining Services. Rutgers’ truck, the Knight Wagon, hit the ground running earlier this year and focuses on creative burgers and sandwiches, particularly lamb burgers. In fact, the truck sells about 600 a week of its “twisted gyro burgers” with feta, spinach, olive tapenade and a tzatziki sauce on toasted brioche.

“We didn’t want a ‘normal’ menu – that’s the culture of food trucks; many serve something fun and different,” Emanuel says. His team consulted with a campus dietitian to help keep the portions reasonable and to include a few healthy and vegetarian options in the form of a wheat berry salad and a veggie skewer on toasted naan.

At UAB, Sodexo also reached out to students, who voted to determine whether the food truck would feature an Asian or Mexican concept. Students selected JUMP, the truck version of Jump Asian Express, serving stir-fry dishes with meat and vegetarian options. To further supplement the closed dining facility, Sodexo also contracted with Chick-fil-A to build a trailer on campus.

Food trucks share a common theme when it comes to the menu – they’re tight and well edited, often with a gourmet or extra-creative flare. “They work best when they’re focused on what they do versus trying to be all things to everyone,” says Loparco.

Portability is also important. Rutgers’ Knight Wagon serves its burgers in a large paper cone, placing the waffle fries on top like a typical fish-and-chips to-go package you might get in London or Belgium. The recyclable paper used is also compostable, a growing trend among packaging choices for campus food trucks.

When it comes to pricing, most of the trucks keep theirs at an affordable rate, say $6.75 for a sandwich, fries and a drink, or $2.50 for a hot dog (as at Rutgers), and many allow students to use their meal plans or flexible meal dollars as payment.

“The way we see it, the more options a student has to purchase food using their meal plans, the better,” says Emanuel. “The flexibility of going to the truck is great for the students because sometimes they don’t want an all-you-can-eat meal, or don’t have the time to sit down.”

Setting up Shop

From an institutional stand­point, food trucks’ relative affordability is a big part of their allure. A full dining center renovation might cost upwards of $1 million on the low end, while fully outfitted food trucks cost a fraction of that – between $100,000 and $200,000.

“The versatility that food trucks bring is important to a college campus,” says Loparco. “It’s a low investment for us at $167,000, and we can use it in so many applications – tailgating for football, catering, major non-sports related events.” In comparison, the UMass Baby Berk trucks cost $150,000 (and $175,000 for a stepped-up version), while Rutgers’ Knight Rider truck cost slightly less than $200,000. Rhode Island School of Design’s truck, Rosie’s: Food to Go, cost a mere $35,000 when it opened 4 years ago as one of the first schools to go the food truck route, but that was a very limited investment at the time, says St-Germain. The school has since invested in equipment upgrades.

Sourcing the truck is the first step. The market for food truck leasing, selling and equipping remains competitive, and only a handful of companies handle this type of business. While Rhode Island School of Design had to work much harder to track down a suitable truck at the time, buyers now have the opportunity to purchase a fully equipped, fully functional truck with customizable features.

At UMass, Toong made sure to select equipment that staff could use in multiple ways. “We wanted to make sure the truck had flexible equipment because we didn’t want to stick to one menu for the rest of its life, and it’s great for different dayparts,” he says, noting the Baby Berk trucks serve breakfast, lunch and late-night meals on weekends. A flattop grill, for instance, is a perfect canvas for anything from eggs at breakfast to tacos at lunch, and stir-fries, cheesesteak sandwiches, burgers and other dishes at dinner.

When UMass opened up Baby Berk 2, it lengthened the grill from 3 to 4 feet and added a steamer for Asian-style baos (steamed buns). The trucks, like many others, also feature a refrigerated sandwich table, two-door reach-in refrigerator and a couple of fryers, plus a hand sink. Some trucks, as in the case of RISD’s Rosie’s, use a steam table to hold preprepared hot foods such as pulled pork before they get a blast on the flattop. Ventilation fans filter and blow cooking air directly outside the truck.

“At the end of the day, the food truck is a dream kitchen,” says Toong. You don’t have to walk too far to cook and serve food; and you’re working with a limited menu and benefitting from multiuse equipment set in a small footprint.

Other truck operators also plan to change their menus from time to time. After rounds of testing at the University of Montana, Loparco’s team decided on a Mexican-inspired menu with tacos and burritos for its Galloping Griz truck, but might switch to Vietnamese fare at some point. Further complicating matters is the popular Grizzly Breakfast Burrito, which made it to the final four in a best food truck competition on the Food Network. At one point the Galloping Griz sold 100 of the breakfast burritos in 3 hours. Even with a menu switch, the truck might have to keep this item on.

And then there’s the question of generators and fuel sources, which becomes especially important in cold-weather areas. Rhode Island School of Design recently invested in a better generator after struggling through its first winters. “We used to have to charge batteries, but now we spent the money on a good, quiet LP generator fashioned to the undercarriage of the vehicle and which pulls in liquid propane for cooking instead of using up the fuel line,” says St-Germain. The UMass truck sets out a propane warming post for students to huddle around during the cold winters.

Beyond equipment and generators, food trucks might include other cus­tomizable features. UMass learned after its first truck opening that, with such high volumes, one service window was not enough. As a result, Baby Berk 2 has two windows: one for order taking and payments, the other for serving.

Daily Operations

Most campus food trucks fill up in the mornings at a commissary kitchen, where much of the prep work takes place. While Montana’s Galloping Griz serves breakfast, the most popular service time ranges between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. when students catch a break in between classes for a quick lunch or afternoon snack.

“We have been studying student traffic patterns to determine where to go,” says Priecko of UAB’s JUMP truck. At Rutgers, the Knight Wagon truck also travels to busy areas, with vans driving back and forth to and from the commissary as needed to replenish food more quickly. The truck will switch locations during the week.

Some schools, like UMass, keep their trucks open well into the night, loading up at the commissary in between lunch and late-night service. On weekends, Baby Berk caters to late-night crowds until 4 a.m., with a menu pared down from 5 or 6 items to 2 or 3, says Toong. In that regard, food trucks help service different dayparts outside of traditional dining hall hours. When finished serving, most of the schools surveyed in this article send their vehicles back to the commissary or other official car parks as regulated by their municipalities.

Many trucks also cater evening and weekend special events, such as football games and graduation ceremonies, and this is precisely one of their advantages, says Warner, who notes that doing so naturally expands typical student dining services and opens up opportunities for added revenue.

Convenience, creativity and connections – food trucks put a face to campus dining services teams. While exhibition kitchens in serveries first started the breakdown of the back of the house to mesh with the front, food trucks bring staff and students even closer. As the rampant success of these featured trucks has shown – they’re also the wave of the future when it comes to dining in higher education.

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