Mobile menus

Published in FSD Update

Operators share tips for creating successful food truck menus.

star-ginger-truck

UC Davis’ Star Ginger truck.

One of the biggest upsides to starting a food truck is you can get food to places it’s often difficult to reach with a brick-and-mortar location. That’s also one of the biggest challenges, as operators have to plan a menu around the equipment and logistical limitations of serving food out of a mobile unit. Here’s how operators have met the menu development puzzle of food trucks.

In 2011, the babyBerk food truck opened at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Revenue increased so much so that dining services added a second truck to the babyBerk fleet in 2013.

One truck serves breakfast sandwiches alongside a coffee kiosk in the morning before joining the second truck and transitioning to lunch, dinner and late night six days a week. For the food truck menu, Director of Retail Dining Services Dave Eichstaedt has one main cook-to-order item (a burger or grilled cheese) and five signature items based on the main, at least one of which is always vegetarian. “Offering a variety of items, based on a main concept or theme is an efficient use of storage and kitchen prep space as it gives the customer options without overloading the truck with product,” he says. “And [keeping signature items to five] allows sufficient product turn to ensure freshness, speed and ease of service.”

At UC Davis, Sodexo teamed with the Star Ginger restaurant group to create a food truck serving Southeast Asian cuisine. The truck primarily serves lunch—which includes three proteins (Thai chicken, five-spice pork and tofu) for each core menu item (banh mi sandwiches, noodle salads or Asian tacos). Gina Rios, Sodexo’s general manager for retail dining, says the number of menu items was determined based on customer demand and cooking capacity.

K-12 schools can benefit as well. Ann Cooper, director of food service for Boulder Valley School District, in Colorado, recently purchased a food truck “to better serve high school kids who don’t want to eat in the cafeteria but think food trucks are cool.” As such, the truck will visit one of the five high schools each day during lunch. Cooper plans to serve complete meals from the truck, including a vegetable salad, fruit and milk, with a gourmet twist on the regular cafeteria menu (think pulled pork sliders and bratwurst).

Prepping points

Will Rogers, executive chef of Green Tidings Mobile at the University of Maryland, in College Park, opened his food truck last June. The truck focuses on local and sustainable lunches, such as roasted butternut squash and hazelnut brown butter grilled cheese sandwiches, and features nine items: a soup, two salads, two platters or sandwiches, a side, dessert and two drinks.

Most items are prepped in production kitchens and finished to order on the truck. For example, fish is portioned, salsa made and peppers julienned in Rogers’ kitchen, but the tortillas and fish are cooked to order on the truck. “This way we can serve up to 350 customers, but if we [did all prep on the truck], I estimate we could serve only 150 customers.” Likewise, Rogers grills burgers, toasts bread and fries doughnuts on the truck, while braised items and rice are held hot, and all salad dressings, sauces and other complicated components are premade in the catering production kitchen.

Similarly, preparing housemade items like aïolis that require mixers or blenders to be made efficiently, par cooking of large quantities of meat, slicing cheeses and processing vegetables are all prep steps Eichstaedt’s team does in the kitchen. “This also allows the truck to remain simple and versatile. If you utilize the storage you have to keep only the items you need for direct service and you don’t clutter the truck’s fridges with raw materials, you can supply a larger volume,” says Eichstaedt, citing the ability to serve 500-plus customers without restocking.

The truck itself

Some trucks come equipped with deep-fryers, griddles, ranges, steam tables, ovens, generators, freezers and refrigerators. Cooper found her food truck on Craigslist, fully equipped with a fryer, charbroiler and griddle tops, though  it lacked an oven, which means some items such as pulled pork have to be made in production kitchens.

Eichstaedt tried conventional ovens, cooktops (“exceedingly dangerous in practice”), steamers and panini ovens, all of which have been removed or discontinued. “Practical, multifunctional equipment serves best and it is safer and easier to use,” says Eichstaedt, who utilizes a steam table, flat top griddle and 35-pound stand-up fryers on each truck. “Get back to basics with homestyle cooking methods rather than gadgets and showmanship like you might see on TV. Tested techniques like deep-frying are what make street food so delicious in the first place,” he adds.