What makes a successful food truck? FSD spoke to Gustavo Plascencia, general manager of safety, sustainability and projects for Dining Services at the University of California, Riverside, about his department's food truck, the Culinary Chameleon. Plascencia walked FSD through the thinking and practicalities behind each element of the truck and how those elements make it a success.
The Culinary Chameleon came to UCR's campus in January and has been serving hungry students Mexican favorites ever since. Plascencia says a lot of research went into it deciding what the department needed to make the truck happen.
"It turned out our county is one of only two counties in the state of California that do not allow food trucks," Plascencia says. "However, we are a state entity so we follow the state food code that does allow food trucks, so that’s what allowed us to have a truck on campus even though no other trucks are allowed in the county."
Once the red tape for the truck was cleared, the department decided on a concept and what type of equipment the truck would require.
"We landed on Mexican early on for several reasons," Plascencia says. "First, the food truck was going to temporarily be taking the place of a taco stand that was closed due to consstruction. However, the bigger discussion was about, 'do we want a static menu or something we can change?' We decided to go with Mexican and see how that concept did for a while, but we wanted to make sure that if the concept got tired we had the ability to change things up without having to reinvest money in equipment. We wanted to have equipment in there that would be flexible."
The 32-foot truck cost the department $250,000, according to a university press release. The interior is made up of several different areas, including an eight-foot prep counter, fryers, a griddle and two service windows.
The ordering process begins when a customer approaches the order window, Plascencia says. The cashier rings the order up, which creates a ticket for the prep team. The hot fillings are already on the steam table. The staff assembles the product to order, and when the order is ready to be served a PA system is used to call out the ticket number. Plascencia says it usually takes about 30 seconds to a minute per order to complete.
A three-well steam table keeps all hot fillings for tacos, burritos and quesadillas warm. The unit is propane heated.
"Initially we were going to put in an electric steam table, but we had some concerns about putting too much of a load on the generator, so we opted to go with the propane-heated steam table," Plascencia says. "It seems to be working great. We've had no problems with temperatures of the hot food."
Next to the steam table is the prep area that holds all the toppings for the tacos, burritos and quesadillas. Plascencia says they have to keep in mind the limited space on this unit when planning the menu because it's only 27 inches wide. "It limits the number of ingredients we can offer," he adds.
Next is the truck's four-foot griddle. The unit is a rapid recovery griddle, which allows the team to reheat protein quickly if needed. It also servers to warm tortillas. The griddle sits on top of a refrigerated stand that stores protein, if needed.
Two full-size fryers allow the team to make churros, chips for nachos and french fries. Next to the fryer is a small two-burner hot plate that the team can use if they need to cook something that would usually be done on stovetop.
The truck also includes a full-size single-door freezer, which is next to a food warmer. Plascencia says a lot of the food on the truck is already cooked and heated at the commissary and then transferred hot to the truck's food warmer. Finally there is an eight-foot service counter that holds the cash register, which is in front of the order and pick-up windows
Customers can help themselves to bottled beverages from the truck's ice bin. The truck also offers fruit cups from this space. Underneath the cash register is a bakery display case that holds three full-size sheet pans of cookies or pastries.
The truck does about 100 transactions per hour during busy hours, according to Plascencia. Sales can be up to $3,000 a day, he adds, which includes breakfast, lunch and dinner.
"The truck stays the night at one of our residential restaurants, which also serves as a commissary for the truck," Plascendia says. "We start off the day with breakfast and throughout the day it gets restocked, especially when we have the turnover from breakfast to lunch. We have a delivery truck that goes to the food truck to bring it products. About 3 p.m. the truck closes and we drive it back to the commissary where we do another restock to get ready for dinner. We also have to refill the propane tanks every day during that period. We’re currently driving over to U-Haul [station] where we fill up the tanks, but we’re looking at putting a propane dispensing station closer to campus that will also be available 24/7. That will help because it's usually 45-minute turnaround period just to fill the tank."
Plascendia says the most popular items sold from the truck include burritos and the carne asada french fries.
The truck's carne asada taco, which features two 4½-inch tortillas with Baja citrus marinated carne asada, onions, cilantro, Cotija cheese, salsa and a lime wedge.
Culinary Chameleon's vegetarian taco is made of two corn tortillas filled with potato rajas, which is sautéed onions, peppers, diced potatoes, Cotija cheese and touch of cream, topped with pickled red onion and avocado sauce.
The Kogi Taco features two tortillas with a Kogi Pork that is made of grilled pulled pork marinated in Korean barbecue sauce, topped with housemade kimchee, pickled cucumber and Korean barbecue sauce.
Another popular item from the truck is these carne asada Chameleon fries, which are french fries topped with refried beans, cheese sauce, Baja citrus marinated carne asada, salsa, sour cream and jalapeño slices.
The truck often parks in an area where customers can enjoy their food in outdoor seating.
Plascendia says the biggest challenge the team has encountered with the truck has been developing a process to refill the propane tank.
"We didn’t know what the turnaround would be with filling propane so it’s taking a lot of time," Plascendia says. "The only other thing we are working on is running a power connection to the truck so we don’t have to use a generator at every location. We’re still working with our electrician to get the right power outlets. That would allow us a longer run time without having to refill the propane tank as often. The generator uses about half the amount of propane than is consumed by the truck. If we were able to plug it in at certain locations then we could possibly fill up the tank every other day as opposed to every day."