Food Trucks to the Rescue

University of Houston, Aramark turn to popular local option during renovation of 45-year-old University Center.

By Paul King, Editorial Director

Food trucks help make up the
revenue loss during the UC renovation.

HOUSTON—The University Center at the University of Houston is getting its first face-lift since the building was constructed in 1967. The renovation of the student center will include a new food court with five branded concepts.

While the foodservice portion of the $80 million renovation is going on, students, faculty and staff on the 40,000-student campus can take advantage of eight food trucks, some of which are operated by Houston graduates.

Auxiliary Services and Aramark, the university’s foodservice provider, worked together to select the trucks, which are located on two separate pads near the University Center.

During the summer, three trucks were brought in: Bare Bowls Kitchen, The Waffle Bus and Bernie’s Burger Bus. When the academic year began, the university contracted with five more units: The Rice Box, Kurbside Eats, Happy Endings, Stick It and Corerano’s. The original three trucks occupy one pad, while the other five come on campus on a rotating basis, two at a time.

“Our role with the trucks has been with screening them for how their menus and price points fit the campus,” says Geoff Herbert, district manager for Aramark at the university. “We’re also responsible to make sure we’ve vetted them in terms of their responsibility as foodservice providers, in terms of safety and sanitation and the integrity of the business they are running. On a day-to-day basis we are there to support them with needs they might have, being the link to educating them as to how to operate properly and successfully on a college campus, and finally by being a conduit to them for feedback from the student body and the campus community and offering them solutions to problems or to improve what they are offering.”

Easy solution: Herbert explains that the university and Aramark opted for the trucks after considering some of the contractor’s own concepts.

“The ease with which we could establish food trucks was key in our decision,” he notes. “A lot less infrastructure was needed. We were lucky that there is this incredible group of young, creative, passionate foodservice people who have started this new business model that appeals to the exact demographic that we have at the university. From the perspective of what the customer wants, food trucks score very high. From the perspective of the ease of doing this, they scored very high on our scale as well.”

Herbert acknowledges that the university did consider Aramark’s own program of licensed food trucks. However, administrators ultimately decided to tap into the large number of food trucks to be found in Houston, some of which students were already familiar with. He adds that some of the trucks are operated by Houston graduates.

“That seemed to be a better way to get up to speed quickly, rather than to bring in something from scratch and have to acquaint the community with it,” he explains. “It’s a great way to support the local business community in general, but more specifically Houston graduates, and also to tap into the notion of these trucks as being top-notch quality providers.”

Amber Arguijo, marketing manager for Aramark at the university, says she has been marketing the trucks through on-campus news releases, several types of signage around campus and through Facebook and Twitter.

“We were very lucky in that our first truck location is in a spot that pretty much marketed itself,” Arguijo notes. “It was a main thoroughfare on campus so they drew in their own audiences.”

Students seem to have taken to the new trucks, she adds, using heavy activity on social media as proof.

“Students have their favorites that they make sure to tweet out on Twitter and they post things on Facebook,” she says. “They also tell us about other trucks they’ve seen; I get tweets a couple of times a week from students telling us about other trucks they’d like to see on campus.”

Back at the student center: The renovation that created the need for the trucks was nearly five years in the making, according to Keith Kowalka, assistant vice president for student affairs. Not only was there the design and bid process, there was legislative approval to secure; the project required a dramatic increase in student fees, which are controlled by state mandate.

“The issue went to a referendum in 2008 for a student vote,” Kowalka explains. “Students voted to increase their fee from $35 to $160. Then in 2009 we had to navigate through the Texas House of Representatives’ higher education committee and the Texas State Senate’s higher education committee. Students gave testimony in support of the increase.”

In addition to new foodservice facilities, the redesign of the University Center will include a central retail quarter and significantly more large event space.

“In the old building, we had a large ballroom for 1,200, but our next largest space could only hold about 200,” says Kowalka. “In the new space, we will still have the ballroom, but we’ll also have a second ballroom that will hold 600, a multipurpose space for 300 and a theater that will seat 450.”

Esmerelda Valdez, executive director for Auxiliary Services, says the new food court will retain one national brand, Chick-fil-A. A Wendy’s is being replaced with McDonald’s, and in place of Subway there will be a Panda Express. A Starbucks will anchor the ground floor, and a Freshies restaurant and a convenience store will round out the food offerings.

“The area will have more of an openness to it, with more common space,” adds Valdez. “The food concepts will be more visible as well; in the old design the other concepts were hidden behind the Wendy’s.”

Kowalka notes that even though the space will seem more open, it will also be broken up to provide more private spaces as well.

“There will be lots of nooks and crannies to help create some small-group dialogue space,” he says. “We are trying to make as many places in the building ‘lounge-friendly.’ Many students consider the library the hangout place, but we should be the hangout place. At night the area can be used for special events.”

Future for food trucks: Once the foodservice portion of the renovation is completed next year, the university does not plan to abandon the food trucks that are currently keeping hungry students satisfied.

“When we began this process, our window was very short as we needed to capture the business we were going to be losing from the food court,” says Aramark’s Herbert. “But very quickly we learned that there can be a role for the trucks on campus after the renovation is complete. There are corners of the campus where it is harder to serve customers with traditional brick and mortar operations. There are events on campus where these trucks will be absolutely perfect, from football tailgating parties to the student spring festivals. We see a continuing role for quite some time.”