Meeting the dining demands of a growing and underserved Hindu and Muslim student population.
Auburn University, in Alabama, introduced a new food truck called Ceci, an ancient name for garbanzo beans, to serve menu items that meet their dietary, religious and cultural preferences.
How it's done
Ceci, which launched in September 2014, serves a menu Emil Topel, senior executive chef of Tiger Dining, calls “Near to Far Eastern Cuisine,” meaning recipes that span from Egypt to Persia, Turkey and India. As such, menu items include roasted chicken pitas, lamb and mushroom kofta, curried lentil patties, grilled harissa falafel and brown rice tabbouleh salad, alongside half a dozen sauces including sesame tahini, feta and tarator (a yogurt-based sauce). Topel also plans to start a curry-of-the-day special.
There’s no beef offered on the truck, in order to make the menu Hindu-friendly, but perhaps most unusual is the protein served—it’s halal meat, which denotes a non-mechanized method of animal slaughter (a religious requirement for Muslims, similar to a kosher Jewish diet). Prior to the truck’s launch, Muslim students could eat only vegetarian offerings on campus, so it’s no surprise that the request for halal meat from a Muslim group was the impetus for Ceci.
“I wanted to use only halal meats, but also open the location up to other ethnicities and needs,” Topel explains. “So I created some great vegetarian options that also appeal to Hindus, as well as the everyday American vegetarian or food enthusiast. We’ve received all good feedback, as many of the Muslims and Hindus I have spoken to have been very appreciative of the new dining option.”
Topel says you have to be very careful about storage and preparation space when it comes to halal meat. He stores his in a separate cooler with no pork or non-halal items present. Likewise, Topel segregated an oven in a kitchen outside of the truck for the halal meats in order to speed up ticket time and avoid cross-contamination. “This would ruin the integrity of the food—it’s of the utmost importance, as I do not want to create an issue with a guest’s religious beliefs,” he says.
Also, halal meats are more expensive than traditional proteins. One way to reduce costs is to use less-expensive cuts of the animal. For example, Topel uses ground halal lamb to make his kofta recipe, rather than offering chops.
Though Topel is not Muslim, he’s been able to replicate authentic recipes through online research. “I looked for traditional dishes, sides and sauces from the regions and paired them up with the appropriate entrées,” explains Topel, who sent his menu to the International Student Association for its input and expertise.
Topel quickly realized if he wanted the food truck to be profitable, the items must be true to the original recipes and cultural guidelines but also recognizable so non-Muslim/Hindu students would want to try them. Topel says newspaper articles and TV segments have been successful marketing tactics. “We have had many international nights around campus over the years and students are open to trying new things, but only if they are recognizable,” he says.
Location also is important. In the beginning, Topel moved the truck around to various locations throughout campus to hone in on the most profitable spot. He’s since determined the best positioning is close to where the Middle Eastern population takes classes, though he also plans to ramp up the truck’s marketing efforts to other vegetarian groups on campus.
Ceci has attracted students spanning the cultural gamut. The majority of the food truck’s patrons are non-Muslin students looking for something different and delicious, reports Topel. He adds that sales average around $500 per day, and “we are growing every week.”