California Polytechnic State University is renovating its flagship dining facility. When the renovations conclude in late 2022, the building will be a state-of-the-art mealtime destination with nine food concepts and plenty of seating.
In the meantime, students can opt to dine al fresco at food truck villages developed through a project led by campus dining. The villages, located in key locations and serving at targeted times on campus, are already beloved destinations for students to eat and socialize.
Andrea Burns oversees campus dining in her role as associate executive director of commercial services for the Cal Poly Corporation, a nonprofit organization that partners with the university. She says the food truck villages were developed to address the seating shortage and provide meal options over a period of about 15 months.
Students “don’t typically go back to the residential dining hall during the day. So we knew we were going to need to do something to take care of them,” she says.
The project also happens to intersect with the pandemic-driven need for more outdoor gathering spaces, an issue the university took up last year when they installed outdoor seating across campus to give students more options for safe spaces to eat, socialize and study.
Participating food trucks offer a wide range of options. There are three community-based vendors. G. Brothers Smokehouse, a San Luis Obispo spot that specializes in smoked meats, runs both a barbecue truck and a tacqueria truck. SLO Dogs is a Los Angeles-based venture that makes its own beef hot dogs (and also offers a vegetarian dog). Jewel of India runs a kiosk featuring many vegetarian items and is, Burns notes, “owned and operated by ex-Cal Poly dining employees. So they knew exactly what the needs of the students were.”
Two campus-run trucks will soon join the lineup with rotating menu options. What’s Cookin’ Mobile will serve sliders, salads, fried rice, tacos, loaded nachos, and more. Central Coaster will have lighter fare, including salads, veggie burgers and assorted grilled options.
All food vendors accept student meal plans. Students can pay using a student meal card or the Grubhub app, which is connected to the meal program at Cal Poly.
Students can also pull out their card or smartphone to grab coffee at the campus Starbucks truck, which was installed in early October. Campus dining brought the truck in to handle walk-up orders; the campus brick-and-mortar Starbucks, located across the street, only takes Grubhub orders.
The food truck village closest to the building under renovation has a relaxed, fun ambience. To create it, the university installed decomposed granite surfaces, picnic tables, Adirondack chairs, colorful umbrellas, and even two cornhole games. They also planted trees. Large planters, relocated from elsewhere on campus, create a border between the seating area and an adjacent bike path. The trucks are open for lunch between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m.
One challenge they faced was finding outdoor furniture that could be delivered in time for the start of the academic year, given supply chain uncertainties. Burns said they were thrilled to not only meet that goal but that the Adirondack chairs they purchased made from environmentally friendly landfill- and ocean-bound plastics.
The community vendors move to a second food truck village to serve dinner, located across from the first-year dining pavilion, where students were experiencing long dinner lines. They’re building out the space with hard surfaces for the trucks and seating for diners. Soon, they will install string lights (in both villages). Dinner is served between 5:00 and 8:00 p.m.
Cal Poly expects the new facility to be open to students in January 2023. Afterward, the infrastructure for the food truck villages will continue to be used as gathering spaces for students and visitors. Campus food trucks will serve meals in an area near the library that doesn’t have many food options nearby.
The three community vendors will decide whether or not to continue offering meals on campus based on what is best for their businesses. Burns notes that the extra options in the new dining facility will create competition for the outdoor food vendors, which may dissuade them from participating past the end of next year. But whether they stay or not, the project is a big win for the campus.
“It’s taken underutilized spaces on a very beautiful campus and just put in much-needed hangout space for the students,” Burns says. “We’re excited that we’re able to lead the project and help the university be more attractive and improve the student experience.”