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Inside the Industry: Roadside Assistance

By Selena Fragassi


“To Go” dining takes a whole new approach as food trucks become more than pit stops at colleges and universities

When Michigan State University had to undergo renovations to one of its larger food service dining halls last fall, they had a dilemma: How could they still serve students meals while the kitchen was incapacitated? The solution: food trucks. Dating back to the pioneering days of chuck wagons, food trucks have become a popular add-on at social events in the last decade, popping up at school dances, birthday parties, music festivals and black-tie galas—so much so that many mobile catering options are now even Zagat rated. Yet as more and more colleges and universities welcome day conferences to their campuses, the food truck trend has become an even more welcome addition for meals and breaks.

“We’ve been working on having food trucks for awhile,” says Kat Cooper, communication manager of residential and hospitality services at Michigan State University, “but it really made sense to launch the program in conjunction with our construction [last year] because we were able to park the truck outside the location where students would normally eat and continue to service them.”

Cooper notes just how versatile food trucks have become for the campus, not only for students but also for conference guests who book during the construction-heavy summer season and football game day attendees who can visit the truck outside the stadium and order an award-winning smoked cheddar cheeseburger. In fact, the school’s first food truck, Eat At State On-The-Go, was so popular that the team at Michigan State opted to motor up another one this summer. Called Food for Thought, it focuses on a rotating weekly menu of varying international cuisine.

“We noticed a further opportunity to bring food to areas of campus that are underserved by our dining services. We have pockets across the grounds that are typically full-time office spaces but without any convenient food in the area,” notes Cooper.

Owned by the school, the Eat At State On-The-Go and Food for Thought trucks are also beneficial for conference groups that desire an outdoor setting or portable room. Costs are less than a sit-down meal, Cooper says, ranging from $7-9 per person for a lunch—and menus offer a lot of variety. Recent menus included pulled pork barbecue sandwiches, roast beef wraps, Vietnamese Bao, black and blue steak gyros and an often-requested item known as the walking salad. “It’s very popular especially for our vegetarian clientele who want something they can take with them on the go,” says Cooper.

Although the food truck program is still rather new at the university, Cooper has seen growing interest in this unique culinary service. “Planners like that you can schedule the food truck to be at a certain location at a certain time, and with a campus as beautiful as ours with lots of park-like settings, conference attendees benefit from getting out of the building,” she says. “So not only does it offer savings, but it also allows guests the chance to visit other parts of the school and have a more informal, even quick, option for a meal.”

If you’re thinking, ‘What do they do in the winter?’ Well, the school has a plan for that, too. “We use our trucks year-round and sell a lot of hot chocolate in the colder months,” says Cooper, noting that she and her team are there to deliver the best possible experience during every month of the year—even if that means ordering more of the fleet. “If this program becomes so popular and in demand that we don’t have enough to go around, we’ll absolutely expand the program.