Rutgers University rolled out a mobile Starbucks station at the beginning of its fall semester in early September, joining Arizona State, James Madison, East Carolina and Sacramento State as universities with a motorized unit of the familiar coffee chain.
The coffee shop on wheels spent its first weeks getting the lay of the land on the Brunswick-Piscataway campus of New Jersey’s state university, says Nick Emanuel, director of operations for Rutgers Dining.
“We have five stops around campus we can go to,” he explains. “Because we also own a food truck, our Knight Wagon, we were already set up with the class schedules and where the students are going to be.”
The truck parks at specific spots designated for only food trucks, which had already been in place for Knight Wagon and an independent food truck operator with permission to set up on campus.
However, the Starbucks truck can’t simply follow the schedule set by Knight Wagon, which specializes in food. “At lunchtime, one doesn’t necessarily want to get a beverage,” Emanuel observes, “so we’re playing around a bit with the times. We’ve been trying different locations out to see what works best.”
One potential market for the mobile beanery is students from the campuses located away from the school’s lone fixed-location Starbucks who might want the chain’s products but can’t easily get to it.
The truck’s scheduled stops are communicated each morning by social media like Twitter. Rutgers Dining is using Knight Wagon’s Twitter handle, which has 4,700 followers, to communicate about the Starbucks truck as well.
“Until we get a solid schedule where we know where we’ll have to be and can send out daily and weekly schedules, we’ll have daily alerts,” Emanuel says.
Right now, the truck is active on campus weekdays from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. It also makes some weekend appearances at certain special events, but high-traffic events like football game days have been avoided due to the difficulties posed by replenishing the truck in large crowds. However, smaller sports events like basketball games are a possibility in the future, Emanuel says.
Rutgers Dining purchased the vehicle at a cost of around $200,000, frugal compared to the cost of a fixed-location unit, Emanuel observes. It includes a reservoir filled with the special reverse-osmosis water used to make Starbuck’s coffee products, and the pump unit used to fill it is powered by a solar panel on the truck roof.
Emanuel estimates the truck generates 400 to 500 transactions on an average day, with traffic fairly consistent across the day.
When it comes to ordering, “Students are pretty set in their ways with the drinks,” Emanuel observes. “They know exactly what they want, whether it’s at the truck or the store.”
However, food sales at the truck have lagged a bit compared to the fixed location, probably because the truck has no display case to merchandise the selections, though a sign out front notes that the truck menu includes a full food selection.
Emanuel is hoping that with time students will recognize that they can get food as well as beverages at the truck, which should help boost the check average.
One challenge early on was the amount of ice the truck was going through, but Emanuel anticipates that leveling off as the weather turns cooler.
The truck staff generally includes five associates plus a manager. Emanuel says that number may be reduced in the future as Rutgers Dining gets more experience with its newest outlet, but it probably will always be at least three associates plus a manager.
During especially heavy periods, staff can be shuttled between the truck and the fixed-location Starbucks unit as all associates are cross-trained on both platforms.
“We’ll see how it goes for this semester,” Emanuel summarizes. “We’ll keep fine-tuning it. I figure it will take a good year—fall semester and spring semester—for us to really get an idea of where we need to be and when we need to be there.”