The phenomenon is spreading so quickly, in fact, that it’s difficult to accurately track it, according to Rachel Warner, director of communications and marketing at the National Association of College and University Food Services.
“It’s still a relatively new trend in the college and university market, [but] in the last couple of years, food trucks have really taken off,” says Warner, estimating their on-campus presence to have been roughly “fewer than a dozen five years ago [but] as many as 100 now.” Warner’s group represents more than 550 colleges throughout North America.
Aramark, a food service company for more than 600 colleges throughout the country, first introduced a collegiate food truck in 2010. This fall, the company brought an additional 10 food trucks to college campuses, nearly doubling their presence within a year. Now, 22 campuses under Aramark are served by food trucks. Company officials say they typically contract with a truck provider and share revenue with the school.
Bon Appétit Management Co. provides culinary services to about 100 colleges around North America. Of its collegiate clientele, three universities have food trucks in operation, two schools are close to rolling trucks out, and an additional handful are in early discussion stages.
“Five years ago, we had none. But starting around 2009, we began noticing how upscale food trucks were growing in popularity in cities,” says Bonnie Powell, director of communications for Bon Appétit. “The students really seem to love them.”
The appeal of food trucks to students is apparent, but there is also a financial incentive for the colleges.
Besides additional revenue from regular walk-up customers, many college food truck programs allow students to use special dining plan credits or, in Northeastern’s case, retail Husky Dollars to buy meals; other schools including UMass-Amherst do not. Still other colleges, such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology, allow independent trucks on campus and benefit in other ways.
“We were [one of the] first campuses in the country to embrace the food truck concept,” says Michael Myers, associate director of dining services at MIT. “The reason they were brought on campus [is because] in that particular area, over by the Kendall T stop, there were very few food service options. We really needed to fulfill that need.”
The initial necessity has since blossomed into a mobile eatery row, where four food trucks (Momogoose, Jerusalem Café, Clover Food Lab, and José’s) reign supreme. Myers says that these trucks pay monthly rent on stationary spaces.
Dan Weidman, who works at an event-catering start-up near the Kendall Square food truck hub, isn’t much concerned about why the trucks are there, but is glad they are. “It’s really fresh food, and it’s unique,” he says between bites of a chickpea fritter from Clover Food Lab. “You get tired of going to Au Bon Pain and Chipotle and all those commercialized businesses, where this is independent. Why wouldn’t you want to go to that local place that’s only here?”
Like most independently run food trucks, none of the mobile retailers surrounding MIT accept the college’s Tech Cash or any other form of university food credit.
“A lot of it comes down to the financial model, to keep dollars within campus so [the truck’s revenue] can support campus initiatives,” explains Laverdiere. “If you have an external food truck that pulls up in front of an establishment that pays rent to the university, the options are great — but is that a business model you want? You want to be supportive of those who are supporting the university. Something that’s within our own system [makes for] good business. . . . It makes a lot of sense.”
BU is in the midst of preparing to launch its own food truck, Fan Boy, which will feature a menu of Asian fusion recipes and has already arrived on campus. But the vehicle remains dormant and unused, attesting to the obstacles that can face mobile eatery start-ups.
“We’re hitting a lot of roadblocks, quite honestly,” Laverdiere admits with a sigh, referring to legal hurdles the project is facing with city officials. “It’s more challenging to find acceptable places than we expected, and to apply to be on the official routes, there’s some challenges with that as well. We’re really trying to figure out where we can put the truck. It’s not an easy process.”
Clearly, the campus food truck movement shows no sign of slowing.
“There’s a cool factor related to food trucks right now,” says Laverdiere. Continued...