Lions, tigers and crepes—oh my! Visitors to the Smithsonian National Zoo are discovering cool new food trucks tucked away amongst the animal habitats and walking trails. Enhancing the guest experience has been the driving force between the food truck initiative, and also the overall partnership between Sodexo, the zoo’s foodservice partner and Centerplate, which has a joint management team at the venue.
Several years ago, in the early days of the partnership at the zoo, “We were just discussing how to make the zoo a more interesting place and a more dynamic and exciting experience,” says Pamela Baker-Masson, the zoo’s associate director of communication, exhibits and planning. “Prior to [Sodexo/Centerplate being there], it was such standard, not great quality food.”
Adding seven local food trucks in the last couple of months has been the latest reiteration of that mission. Food trucks are a pretty great fit for the zoo because “we can’t construct new buildings because of our animal habitats,” Baker-Masson says. And diversifying the dining experience must be done in ways that suit the zoo’s unique topography: It’s designed by famed American landscape architect Frederick Olmsted, and trails that blend with nature (not to mention monkeys) mean you can’t just plop a fried chicken stand in the middle of the 130-year-old zoo.
For example, placing that fried chicken stand near the Great Ape House and its connecting “O-Line” the primates use to go between their areas would likely cause a commotion because the orangutans might think that it’s time to get their snack on, too, only to be disappointed!
“When you do things at the zoo, a few groups have to be consulted,” Baker-Masson explains. “The grounds crew, facility management, electrical…and also our animal care division. Because you can’t just put the sound and sight of food right near the orangutans because they would say, ‘What is this new object?’ We have the responsibility of a live collection of animals, so we take that into consideration when we introduce new things.”
So the zoo has strategically food trucks “in these hidden pockets near the exhibits” that have access to the proper hookups each truck needs, Baker-Masson says, a factor that allows for visitors to find the food trucks as sort of a fun surprise.
The hidden food truck surprises include local DC favorite trucks that have already established a presence in the community: Crepe Love, FunnelFare carnival fare, Bootheel Southern barbecue, Blue Monkey street tacos, Mulan Dumplings, Stella’s PopKern and Dolci Gelati. Also added were two national brand concepts, Auntie Anne’s and Sbarro. The zoo’s primary cafeteria, The Mane Café, is still there, serving more traditional fare like chicken tenders, but that’s up for an overhaul soon as well.
When planning the food trucks’ arrival, “the conversation was that the zoo wanted a unique, neighborhood, walking-through-DC feel,” says Michael Barrett, Sodexo/Centerplate regional vice president. “Our GM at the facility had been there a few months and had the opportunity to focus on getting to know the neighborhood food trucks.”
The food truck operators were all eager to be a part of the zoo, as “they could see it’s a more consistent crowd versus a pop-up space,” Barrett says, adding that through a third-party subcontractor agreement, the trucks started on an initial one-season contract “to make sure we had the right offerings and can fine-tune to what the crowds are looking for.”
There are seating areas near most of the trucks, and one of the handy features is that since the trucks are mobile, they can be moved around/ramped up when events are happening at the zoo.
Crepe Love has been one of the top sellers, and it’s no surprise considering the “something for everyone” menu that includes sweet and savory crepes such as the crowd favorite Da Vinci (lemon-herb roasted chicken, shredded mozzarella, tomatoes and pesto with nut-free pesto available); Monsieur (country ham, shredded cheddar and so classic); Farmer Joe (signature vegetarian option with shredded cheddar, herbs and veggies; top-selling sweet crepe Carnivale (Nutella, berries and bananas); Citron (housemade lemon butter and natural cane sugar); and kid favorite s’more crepe with Nutella, mini-marshmallows and crumbled graham crackers.
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