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A ‘food cart court’ can provide quality foodservice for nontraditional students, while providing schools real profit potential. Here’s a primer on what you need to know when considering such an alternative.
Students enjoy the Haute Wheels event at Houston Community College.
There are many logistical and financial challenges in addressing nontraditional students’ dining needs. Students may lack interest in, or may not have a schedule that conforms to, traditionally structured meal plans. Campus growth may mean one facility alone does not provide adequate foodservice coverage. Class schedules may dictate on-the-go meals at unpredictable times, but the revenues rarely support extended operating hours. So what is an administrator to do? A “food cart court” could be the answer.
When developing a food cart program, administrators should consider the nuances of implementation. Foodservice management and operations consultants should ask clients various questions to identify the optimal on-campus truck locations—if there will be any town-gown considerations, for instance, and who the target customer will be.
The following represents some questions that administrators should ask themselves before embarking:
Location. The old real estate adage “location, location, location” also holds true for food trucks and carts. While all are semi- or fully mobile, they generally will park in one predetermined location on a campus. Accordingly, picking the right spot can make or break a food cart program. Critical considerations include:
Foot Traffic. How visible is the intended location? Remember: out of sight, out of mind. Is the intended location in a peak pedestrian area? Or are you counting on food trucks to divert pedestrian traffic from elsewhere on campus? If you’re expecting to change traffic patterns, make sure you’re setting realistic expectations. The typical commuter student is often balancing school with work and/or family, and is therefore not likely to waste time searching for food. Pick potential locations that are no more than two minutes off the beaten path and conveniently accessible to parking and classrooms.
Geographic Expansion. Has the campus grown in recent years, or are there future plans to expand geographically? For many community and commuter colleges, growth often means that a single foodservice location will not be convenient to where the students park, arrive via public transportation or take their classes. Instead of picking one food cart court location, consider past and future growth patterns and create multiple food cart “hubs.”
Utility Access. For many desirable campus locations, there is a need to install new water and electrical connections to provide utility service to most carts and trucks. If you’re unsure whether there is sufficient electric and water in your intended location, a discussion with the campus facilities department will typically provide the necessary information.
Adjacent Amenities. Is your intended location near tables, benches or other seating? Is there an awning or other covering to provide protection from the elements? Are there nearby trash and recycling receptacles? Who will service the trash/recycling containers on a regular basis? This type of infrastructure is important for the food carts’ success, keeping your campus clean and promoting student interaction. If you find the location lacking in any way, your institution should consider making small, targeted capital improvements. A simple seating arrangement with trash receptacles will go a long way to supporting your carts or trucks.
Campus Considerations. Will your new food cart court cause any aesthetic or campus design integrity complaints? Will it require that vehicular traffic be rerouted? Administrators should remember to use a campus-wide lens to understand the carts’ impact and assure the program has no unexpected consequences.
Proximity to Other Foodservice Facilities. Do you intend to replace your existing dining operation with food trucks or carts? Or do you expect that they will supplement the existing program? It’s important to define realistic expectations, as multiple food concepts on a small campus can create unnecessary competition, with a detrimental financial impact. If there’s insufficient demand, or too small a student body, introducing food trucks to a community college or commuter campus will either be unsuccessful or squeeze out the existing concepts. Is there is a foodservice contract operator on campus? If so, the operator may require a commission fee or rent from trucks to offset the introduction of competition to its on-campus retail outlets.
Town Gown Considerations. Is your campus located in close proximity to its surrounding community, or in an urban area? Or is it more remote? If you answered the former, you may need to carefully consider your impact on the neighboring community. Many local businesses enjoy proximity to food trucks, seeing them as creating vibrant street-level activity. However, you may receive push back from local restaurateurs who often see trucks and carts as competition with significantly lower overhead. If you’re encouraging your trucks/carts to park in the public space, be aware that there may be local ordinances requiring special permitting or parking approval. For example, at Hillsborough Community College (HCC) in Tampa, FL, there are no permits needed when trucks park on HCC property, but when trucks parked at the Ybor City campus or on city streets, the operator, Tampa Bay Food Truck Rally, must apply for and receive city permits.