Food trucks take up their stations at almost a dozen locations around the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center every weekday at lunchtime—at the invitation of the institution.
Columbia (MO) Public Schools just rolled out a food truck of its own that rotates among district high schools to provide a convenient and trendy lunch option for students reluctant to patronize the cafeteria.
Tampa General Hospital, Pinellas County (FL) Schools and the University of North Carolina Hospitals are other institutions using food trucks to enhance their dining services. From its start on college campuses, the food truck phenomenon has now branched out across multiple onsite segments.
Watch Those Muddy Boots!
OSUMC-Wexner is undergoing massive expansion and construction, which requires the presence of hundreds of outside workers on the campus each day, straining existing foodservice outlets during the lunch rush. Plus, since most work outside, muddy feet are inevitable when the weather is inclement, posing a cleanup challenge.
The hospital hit on a solution a year ago when an employee mentioned seeing a Subway branded truck on campus. “Turns out it wasn’t a food truck but a delivery truck but it gave us an idea,” says Jim Warner, director of food & nutrition services.
OSUMC works through a third-party broker that contracts with the trucks. “The truck contracts are with the broker, so if there are any issues, he deals with them,” Warner says. The medical center’s contract with the broker is now year-to-year, and he provides a rotation of trucks to keep the menu fresh from day to day.
“Also,” Warner notes, “he has trucks with different kinds of menus that appeal to different groups. The construction workers tend to prefer basic, filling fare while students who come here like more adventurous things like Asian noodles.”
Most of the trucks are at the hospital over midday lunch period while a couple return in the evening from 6 to 9 pm to provide a dinner option for second shift workers. One pizza truck also comes around from 11 pm to 2 am to serve the third shift.
Beat the Crowds
At Columbia Schools, the truck rotates among the district’s three high schools on a regular basis (weather permitting). Setting up near the student parking area, it seeks to intercept some of the 11th and 12th graders who have open campus privileges during lunchtime, says Karla Adeshakin, kitchen supervisor.
“The cafeterias can get very crowded so this gives them an alternative,” she says.
The truck is equipped with a convection oven and serves a unique menu of pulled pork or pulled chicken sandwiches plus all the sides needed to qualify as a meal for federal reimbursement purposes. The POS connects wirelessly with the school’s system to verify account balances and reimbursement status.
On the first day of operation, the truck processed 32 transactions followed by 53 the second day despite rainy weather. “That was very encouraging,” Adeshakin says.
It may be deployed in the future as a concession trailer at athletic events, as a mobile summer feeding vehicle and as a mobile kitchen in case of emergency.
Another district using trucks is Pinellas County (FL) Public Schools, where eight vehicles are deployed in a multiplicity of capacities. One of them is serving ready-made 7-inch plain and pepperoni pizzas in high school parking lots. The pizzas come with all the requisite components to make reimbursable meals and are validated with a POS hooked to the district system wirelessly.
The trucks serve up to 300 pizzas a day and the program, launched this past fall, has had an impact as lunch participation counts are up, says Nutrition Services Director Art Dunham. “We also use the trucks in our dinner program,” he notes, “and they also deliver prepared food to cafeterias in sites with small populations.”
Unlike most other food truck programs, the one at Pinellas uses standard delivery trucks. The pizzas and sides are served outside the truck. “It’s like the old Good Humor ice cream trucks,” Dunham says.
Bridging the Caf Closure Gap
At Tampa General Hospital, Retail Operations Manager Everard Barnes of the Dietary Dept. dispenses with the third party approach and manages the food trucks coming to the facility himself. Tampa General originally engaged trucks to accommodate third shift employees after budget cuts curtailed late night foodservice from the hospital’s onsite dining outlets.
Barnes was rotating over two dozen trucks when a renovation temporarily closed his main cafeteria. He turned to the trucks for help.
Today, up to a half dozen dock in an easily accessed parking garage space. Signs across the facility point the way.
The hospital spent around $100,000 to run power lines to the area so trucks don’t have to rely on their own generators. It also takes care of trash collection and hauling from the area.
A roster of more than 70 trucks from all around the area are on Barnes’ list. Each get up to a half dozen “shifts” each month and are scheduled so that there is always a good mix of cuisines. One unanticipated bonus: the authentic ethnic cuisine menus on some of the trucks have delighted Tampa General’s highly diverse staff.
The truck operators work on a flat fee basis ($40 for a lunch shift, $20 for a night shift) rather than percentage of sales. “It’s easier and I don’t have to worry about what kind of POS system they’re using to calculate a percentage,” he says.
Before any truck operator is engaged, it must pass a health inspection and put certain procedures in place. For example, Barnes requires at least a two-person crew at each truck while it operates at Tampa General. The hospital’s chief inspector must also be allowed on board to take a look around at any time.
Barnes does not dictate prices or menus, relying on the competition to sort these issues out. Tampa General employees have been used to subsidized prices in the cafeteria, so the typical prices of a food truck meal posed a bit of “sticker shock” in the early going.
“I suggested to them that they might want to develop some smaller portion versions of their dishes to provide a lower cost alternative in return for access to such a large potential customer base,” Barnes says. Tampa General is a major facility with 1,100 beds, 6,500 onsite employees (not counting physicians) and up to 12,000 visitors a day during the week.
Barnes says his biggest headache is the occasional late cancellation because finding a replacement on short notice is tough. “These are independent businesses with set schedules that they are understandably reluctant to change,” he says. “Also, many have to come from a fair distance.”
Barnes plans to end the lunchtime food truck option when the new cafeteria opens late this spring, but the trucks will still be welcome to service the third shift.
Tampa may be a food truck hotbed, but Chapel Hill, NC, isn’t. Like many jurisdictions, the town—home to the University of North Carolina and its affiliated UNC Hospitals—has made it difficult to operate a food truck business that competes with brick-and-mortar restaurants.
“Chapel Hill purposely priced out food trucks,” says UNC Hospitals Director of Dining Services Angelo Mojica. “It’s $1,000 to get a license and mom and pops didn’t have it. At one point we paid their user fees just to get them to Chapel Hill because there was only one truck licensed in Chapel Hill.”
That rotation was needed to provide foodservice to a new administrative center located just far enough from the main facility and its dining venues to make it impractical to come over for the thousand or so employees moved there.
“Until we get a retail venue in there, we wanted to make sure they got food,” Mojica says. “So we started a rotation of food trucks there.” UNCH charges no fee or commission since they are providing a necessary service.
Mojica is also planning a late night food truck option for the main hospital despite its 24-hour Starbucks that retails various food options. UNCH is partnering with the university on the initiative, which will bring one or two trucks at a time to UNCH in the late evening.
“That space is close enough to many of the university dorms that it will provide a practical option for students,” Mojica says. “They already come over to our Starbucks and Overlook Café. The university can’t have the trucks on its campus because it struggles finding place for them to park.”