With the demand for food trucks in overdrive across the United States, non-commercial operations are yielding to the trend’s popularity and offering mobile options as an additional element to their dining services lineup. Mind you, these trucks do not in any way resemble the old “roach coaches” from days of yore; no, they offer gourmet treats made from top-of-the-line ingredients in state-of-the-art kitchens on wheels. Some foodservice directors say they’ve found the trucks to be a lucrative addition, bringing in additional revenue they hadn’t expected or counted on, and others indicate the mobile additions are the result of invention out of necessity. FSD spoke to five operators to hear how these mobile meal options are faring.
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, LOS ANGELES
Food trucks can crop up in many ways but there is one reason that most often serves as an impetus for the addition of a food truck: a renovation.
“Several years ago, we agreed to remodel the Bombshelter food court on our south campus,” says Cindy Bolton, foodservice director for UCLA’s restaurants. “When we broke ground, we realized we had no foodservice for that part of campus and knew we had to do something temporary while under construction.”
According to Bolton, because the construction was scheduled to take a year and a half to complete, the initial plan called for a custom trailer with a kitchen. The idea, however, was deemed too cost prohibitive so she sought a more viable solution—food trucks.
“I found a company that managed multiple food trucks and immediately realized they could drive onto campus at peak hours and then drive away,” she says. “That started us off; we got a couple of trucks and from there other trucks were referred to us. We started building a list [of prospective vendors] but had no idea at the time how popular it would be.”
Today Bolton says there are 32 food trucks on campus, with each one feeding as many as 700 people per day. She says the contracts she has with her food truck vendors call for them to pay a percentage of sales to the Associated Students of UCLA, the operator of the university’s retail dining program.
“We didn’t really know what to expect,” she says. “This was kind of the first contract we had made. We were conservative in setting the commission rate—we went really low—because we didn’t know what the sales volume would be like. If I were to renew anyone to go into another location, I would renegotiate the asking price.”
The trucks’ schedules and menus are posted on ASUCLA’s Facebook page, on Twitter and appear in the Daily Bruin, the University’s student paper. The popularity of the trucks and their food, Bolton indicated, is enormous. Still, she says, the trucks are not seen as competition for on-campus dining. “The amount of customers they serve is small in comparison with the 20,000 per day that go through the system at UCLA’s restaurants,” she says.
Currently, some of the most successful trucks on UCLA’s campus include Nom Nom, which specializes in Vietnamese Banh Mi; Gastro Bus, which serves organic foods from the Los Feliz Farmers’ Market; the Grilled Cheese Truck, which offers sweet and savory sandwich melts; and Baby’s Badass Burgers, which sells gourmet burgers and chicken sandwiches. Check averages vary from truck to truck but tend to top out at around $7 per person. Most of the mobile vendors accept cash and credit cards but do not participate in UCLA’s student meal plan.
Bolton says the most popular brands earn up to $2,000 a day during the four-hour window they are allowed to park on campus.
“I have not seen anything cross the $3,000 mark and some have sales as low as $400 but an average is around $1,500 a truck in sales [per day],” she says.
MASSACHUSETTS INSTITUE OF TECHNOLOGY, CAMBRIDGE, MASS.
At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., Campus Dining Director Rich Berlin says food truck operations are provided by outside vendors who pay the school either a flat fee or percentage of sales, the latter of which is similar to the setup at UCLA.
MIT has been allowing food trucks to operate at the campus for more than 10 years now. Currently there are four in the rotation: the sustainable Clover Food Lab, Jose’s Mexican, Jerusalem Falafel and My Pad Thai. Check averages at the trucks are as low as $2 and as high as $7.
According to Berlin, MIT imposes a number of requirements vendors must adhere to in order to serve food in Kendall Square, which is adjacent to the campus. Some of those requirements include operating specifically sized trucks according to a certain size parameter, the amount of signage they can place around the trucks and the level of noise they generate. According to Berlin, there is a 30-day period in which MIT can replace a truck if the relationship is not working out.
“They are treated like every other foodservice provider on campus,” he says. “They must establish a protocol every day, are required to have some kind of kitchen or production facility where they produce the food and put it on their trucks and when they are done for the day, they are required to cleanup and take the truck away. For example, they are not allowed to pour grease down the sewer drains at MIT.”
Berlin says he and his staff are careful about selecting food truck vendors, to the point of visiting their brick and mortar establishments—if they have them—to check out food safety practices and sample the food before signing any contracts.
“Before we select a food truck, we go to the restaurant,” he says. “We have to feel comfortable with it and what they offer, make sure of what their practices are and, of course, they then have to pass a test by the city.”
He also says the school is very active in such matters as menu adjustments and pricing changes. Berlin’s department must approve any changes before the truck operators can implement them.
“If someone wants to propose a price increase, they have to share it with our department,” he says. “And in terms of [food safety], one thing we might do if [an operator] has too huge a menu to handle is tell them to cut it down to a few manageable items. We’ll tell them to cut out some less popular items so they can make sure sanitation and safety [practices] are followed.”
Berlin says most of the trucks at MIT have been there for at least 10 years and claim graduate students as their main customer base. This largely is because of the trucks location, as well as the school’s no advertisement policy. As a result, Berlin can better control customer size and flow.
“They are not allowed to advertise in any way [outside of campus],” he says. “We are careful with that; they are here to satisfy our students. They can put flyers up on campus but can’t put an ad in The Boston Globe.”
In addition, the trucks are strategically parked away from MIT’s on-campus dining facilities as a way of reducing competition, Berlin says.
“Really they are there to give our grad students good, healthy, authentic food at reasonable prices,” he says. “But one thing I won’t do is place a food truck immediately next to one of my own foodservice buildings. They are geographically located so they are not encroaching on my businesses.”
UNIVERSITY OF THE PACIFIC, STOCKTON, CALIF.
Another school that has climbed aboard the food truck craze is the University of the Pacific, a Bon Appétit account. The contractor introduced E.A.T., which stands for Easy Artisan Takeout, last November. According to Kari Menslage, Bon Appétit’s director of marketing for the account, the truck is experiencing great success serving gourmet breakfast and lunch sandwiches, baked goods and snacks made from sustainable, organic and local ingredients. The process of taking the truck from the idea stage to rollout took about six months, she says.
“We were having a conversation one day about street food and how the food truck trend was going crazy, especially in L.A.,” Menslage says. “We were seeing college-age kids waiting in line for hours for grilled cheese sandwiches and thought, ‘Why can’t we get in on this?’ The client was on board so we just said, ‘Let’s do it!”
Once the company determined it would debut a truck on campus, it began to explore the cost of creating it. Bon Appétit purchased the shell of a 20-foot linen truck and converted it to meet necessary specifications. At a cost of approximately $100,000, the interior of the E.A.T. truck was constructed from stainless steel and features a three-compartment sink plus separate hand-washing sink, a commercial-grade food warmer, two-basket fryer, 36-inch flat-top grill with two burners, four steam tables, double-door refrigerator and a fully operational POS system.
Next, Menslage says the company enlisted Marco Alvarado, the university’s executive chef, to create a concept and menu in keeping with Bon Appétit’s commitment to using high-quality artisan ingredients.
“It had to meet all of Bon Appétit’s standards for sustainability and had to offer fresh and local items whenever possible,” she says. “We wanted fast, super-easy stuff made from simple, fresh ingredients—high-quality items that really could be eaten on the go.”
Menslage says all of the food, with the exception of roasted meats, such as turkey and pastrami, is prepared on the truck. The meats are smoked in house in a supporting dining facility kitchen and brought over to the truck where sandwiches are then assembled.
All of the menu items, which include fresh seasonal berries, local eggs and fair-trade chocolates, are priced at between $5 and $6. The truck accepts payment in the form of meal plan vouchers, declining dollars, credit cards and cash.
“We wanted it to be affordable,” Menslage says. “When you are getting a pulled pork sandwich with artisan cheddar cheese on a handcrafted roll for $5, that’s a great deal.”
E.A.T. operates from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. At around 9 a.m., a feeder truck comes to take away leftover breakfast items and replenish stock for lunch. Menslage noted that one of the most arduous tasks is the final cleanup of the truck, which takes hours in order to ensure cleanliness and adherence to all health and food safety regulations.
“The [regulations] on food trucks are even stricter than they are on cafés,” she says. “The San Joaquin [County] health department does drop-in inspections every week. The truck in Stockton follows the guidelines to the T; when it closes down for the day, it goes to the campus loading dock, which was designed to handle septic matter. The truck is completely emptied and washed inside and out every night.”
UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON, SEATTLE
At the University of Washington, Storm Hodge, assistant director of foodservice, says its food truck program began when renovations on the student union began.
“Because we’re located in an urban environment, we really had no extra space during the renovation,” Hodge says, “so I immediately thought, ‘Let’s try food trucks.’ There were a few in town so we checked them out and instantly knew we could do better.”
One issue Hodge needed to contend with was the fact that the university is a union campus.
“We are a union campus, so we couldn’t go out and lease space and bring in vendors,” he says. “We couldn’t bring in anyone from the outside and open the meal plan up to those vendors.” Instead, the department opened up five trucks of its own.
According to Hodge, he and his team members looked at the various street foods being sold, tasted them and checked their price points. He then examined the university’s overall inventory—there are 36 dining options on campus—and determined what he thought was missing. That’s how he came up with the five types of trucks the school would operate, he says.
“Right now we technically have five trucks—one is a truck and the others are trailers — but we can move them when we need to,” he says.
The university’s truck lineup consists of Siganos, a Mexican taco truck; Red Square BBQ, which serves barbecue sandwiches, sliders, ribs and macaroni and cheese; Motosurf, which sells Hawaiian, Korean and Pacific Island foods; Hot Dawgs gourmet hot dogs; and Curbside 8, which serves West Coast comfort foods such as crispy duck fried rice with poached egg and scallion oil. All are parked on Red Square, the center of the campus, and meal prices range between $2 and $6.95. The trucks accept credit cards and campus meal plans.
Hodge says the Hawaiian truck is the most popular with the students. He added that the university’s goal is to generate daily sales of $1,500 per truck or trailer during the trucks’ five-hour period of operation.
Each truck offers several options every day and the university’s dining halls support the program.
“One dining hall—our largest—supports two of the trucks and a second location supports the others,” he says. “We’ve also added infrastructure, pulled in power, water and technology, so we’re not constantly burning diesel all the time.”
As far as price is concerned, Hodge says the truck cost about $160,000 to build while the big trailers cost $90,000 and the smaller ones averaged $30,000.
In addition to the price of tricking out the trucks, Hodge says his food and labor costs aren’t cheap either.
“We’ve priced it out to hit between 29% and 34% in food costs,” he says, “but we’re using as much local product as possible, about 50%. Labor is a little higher, about 38% to 40%, but we haven’t added too much more labor and we use a lot of part-time student employees who help us out.”
Maintaining a strict food safety policy is one of the most important aspects of running a mobile food system well, according to Hodge.
“We have two health department sanitarians checking on us all the time,” he says. “Though we follow proper HACCP procedures, in order for us to even get approved [to operate the truck/trailers], we had to go through an internal health department check, [install] a three-compartment sink, and make sure holding areas were hot and cold where they needed to be. We had to work with the city of Seattle, which already had come up with rules for carts. We said, ‘OK, these are the rules we have to abide by.’”
REYNOLDSBURG (OHIO) SCHOOL DISTRICT
Though the food truck trend appears to be most popular on college campuses, it is starting to catch on at K-12 schools, too. One foodservice director in central Ohio, Connie Fatseas, debuted a mobile lunch program last summer in the Reynoldsburg School District. There is one caveat, however: This program only feeds young students from low-income, high-need families in the North Linden, Ohio, area.
According to Fatseas, the program, which began two days after the school year ended, offers prepackaged hot lunches to high-need children at four Section 8 housing complexes in the district. The items, which are prepared by several of her employees at school kitchens, are boxed and loaded onto a van for delivery. The van was purchased by the district’s business manager in order to transport the golf and tennis teams to events during the school year but went unused during the summer. So Fatseas asked for and received permission to use the vehicle to start the mobile meals program.
“I had to pay fuel costs but didn’t have to invest in maintenance or anything like that so it was well worth the opportunity,” she says.
She added that choosing the food items required quite a bit of thought because they not only had to appeal to a wide variety of kids, they also had to be shippable. Meals ended up consisting
of such items as turkey sausage, French toast sticks and hash browns, and pizza, corn dogs and cheeseburgers. The offerings change on a 10-day rotational basis.
Fatseas asserted that between running a tight ship and receiving federal reimbursement on the meals, she’s been able to keep the 45-day-long program viable.
“It’s been a real struggle, but I have always been a business woman who has had to be extremely thrifty. I look for products that have a CN label specifying that it meats child nutrition requirements but at a certain cost. I remain solvent and in the black and that’s important for my district.”
Fatseas says she is looking into possibly expanding the program this year.
Frying on the Fly
Truck gives manufacturer opportunity to showcase products.
Foodservice operators aren’t the only ones interested in food truck programs. Manufacturers are jumping on the bandwagon, too.
Bunge Oils, the St. Louis-based producer of edible shortenings and oils for the foodservice industry, is utilizing MOE—Mobile Oil Experts—a 33-foot truck, to showcase foods made with Bunge products.
The truck, which made its debut last year, evolved out of an idea born during The Culinary Institute of America’s 2009 World of Flavors conference in Napa, Calif.
According to Bill McCullough, director of marketing, conference attendees were discussing the popularity of the Kogi Korean taco truck in Los Angeles, and company executives decided to invest in a truck that could offer a taste of Bunge’s products.
“Being in the trans fat-free oil industry doesn’t lend itself to traditional tastings,” McCullough says. “We thought a truck could showcase our products at key trade events and at the headquarters of our key clients.”
The vehicle, a former delivery truck, was purchased on eBay for approximately $3,000, gutted and refitted with a brand new interior that included an eight-basket fryer and 25-gallon clean water tank.
“The focal point for our truck was the fryer, so that’s where we started,” McCullough stated. “We then built in a lowboy freezer, hand sink, griddle and grill, everything a chef would need to start a restaurant on wheels.”
McCullough says the company enlisted the help of Adam Moore, corporate executive chef, and a team of chefs out of Chicago, to develop a series of menu items for the truck.
“He planned everything from maple-infused sausage to deep-fried Oreos to sweet potato fries and watermelon-infused tacos,” McCullough says. “The truck really lends itself to anything from appetizers to entrees—if you’ve got enough equipment on board.”
The truck travels the country from event to event. More than 20 appearances have already been booked this year.
“Certainly we’ve done some brand building,” McCullough says. “It’s been a great engagement tool, allowing us to reach out to customers.”
And because of MOE’s popularity, Bunge is considering adding a second truck.
Still, he advised anyone interested in starting up a truck operation to first consider everything that is involved in its creation.
“I will say it is a lot of work,” McCullough says. “You have to make sure your generator is running, that you have enough fuel and you’ve planned for the queues you may cause. And because there is a limited space, it is important to plan your interior effectively. It’s an expensive venture but certainly rewarding and well worth the effort.”