The tantalizing aromas of earthy empanadas and tangy barbecue chicken mingling in the air lure a small crowd to the rumbling, bright red truck parked smack in the middle of Northeastern University’s Snell Library Quad.
Outside the Hungry Hungry Husky food truck, students and professors jockey to scan the menu. Reaching up to a delivery window for a heaping tray of pita chips and some fresh guacamole, Lauryn Coccoli gushes, “Ah, you’re the best, thank you so much!” She is met with an appreciative nod by a worker inside the school’s food truck.
“Whenever he’s here, I’m here,” says Coccoli, a graduate student at Northeastern. “It’s absolutely convenient, cost-effective, and the food’s great; it tastes better and is cheaper than in there,” she says, gesturing to the Curry Student Center, which houses nearly 10 food court eateries.
Northeastern and the University of Massachusetts Amherst have food trucks and Boston University is trying to start one, joining a national trend of colleges launching their own.
The mobile eateries, which have exploded in popularity in cities around the nation, provide a great solution for colleges with centralized dining and decentralized dorm accommodations, giving food programs new income streams and helping them hold onto student food dollars that might otherwise be spent elsewhere. It also happens at a time when colleges, with their surging tuition costs, are expanding amenities amid tougher competition to attract and keep students.
“It’s a matter of convenience; it’s a matter of bringing services right to the students. If we could make the truck be closer to residential buildings, you could come down in your jammies and get something later in the day,” says Barbara Laverdiere, director of dining services at BU, currently spearheading the school’s effort to establish its own food truck. Laverdiere explains the appeal of university-run trucks as multifaceted, with convenience, variety, and flexibility at the helm.
Around Boston, Northeastern was the first to institute its own food truck, debuting Hungry Hungry Husky (H3) in November 2011.
Northeastern’s director of dining services, Maureen Timmons, says she often looks to the West Coast for culinary inspiration. Doing so in 2009 led her to the mobile food trend. She noted that students flocked to the gourmet trucks doling out ethnic meals at reasonable prices, particularly around the University of Southern California and the University of California-Los Angeles. “We thought, why can’t we do that? It seemed like a fun way to deliver food to the students and meet them where they are.” Timmons set the gears in motion, and in about two years, H3 was up and running.
“It’s been great. Students are always interested in more variety, [and the food truck is] fun and playful, and a little more exciting,” says Timmons.
Depending on the time of year or school events, Timmons is able to redirect the truck to go where students are. Whether positioned outside Northeastern’s Snell Library at midnight during finals week or in front of Parsons Field as a soccer game breaks for halftime, Timmons says, “we can do anything on the food truck.”
Last fall, UMass Amherst introduced the Baby Berk food truck, featuring a menu of gourmet burgers. “It’s a very versatile vehicle that’s convenient for customers,” says Ken Toong, executive director of auxiliary enterprises at UMass Amherst. Toong cites the famed Los Angeles food truck Kogi Korean BBQ-to-Go as his inspiration for bringing mobile food to UMass.
“We want to be the leader of the pack, and with this, we were,” says Toong of the vehicle, which cost around $140,000 to customize. “We take food seriously and students recognize it. The students like it because it’s different. . . . They see it made in front of their eyes made-to-order. At the end of the day, the food has to be good.”
The trucks, which serve far fewer customers than traditional dining halls, are able to be more flexible with menus and can provide more cooked-to-order offerings.
“We tweak the menu continually and change based on students’ feedback,” says Timmons. “It will always be a work in progress.”
“It was about looking at niches we felt we weren’t as strong in as we wanted to be,” says Laverdiere of BU’s prospective food truck offerings. “We’re trying to get an ethnically diverse menu that isn’t traditionally part of the menu. We want to enhance the overall meal plan; the more choices we’re able to add, the better.”
The popularity of food trucks has surged countrywide in recent years after originating on the West Coast. College food-service managers around the nation also spotted the trend and over the past five years, universities from Seattle to Tuscaloosa, Ala., began scrambling to institute their own mobile eateries. Continued...