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By ANDREW KEIPER
A big yellow truck rolls to a stop in the middle of the Lester A. Lefton Esplanade. A generator mounted on the rear bumper kicks to life and a line of students forms. The awning rises and the metal gate is pulled open, showing the cooks bustling inside. The LCD menu flickers to display this week’s choices. With that, the Fork in the Road food truck is open for business.
“I know that students don’t want to eat the same thing everyday,” said student and campus tour guide Lauryn Rosinski. She has been giving prospective students tours for about three semesters, and almost always touts the campus food truck as a highlight of the diversity among the dining options at Kent. “They think that’s really cool that they’re getting to eat different stuff all the time. I’m kind of showing them, you’re not going to get bored with the food.”
College dining is often the object of scrutiny. High prices, repetitive choices, a lack of healthy menus for students on the go, all of these are problems that afflict most campuses. Kent State University has taken a unique approach to offering students quality food in a convenient way. Fork in the Road is a food truck owned by Kent State and operated by Executive Chef Christian Booher and his team of cooks.
For students at Kent State, a lack of dining options on the north end of campus left them hungry and in need of something tasty and convenient. According to Richard Roldan, Director of Food Services at the university, the Fork in the Road food truck is the university’s solution.
“The biggest thing to push it was the last couple years I’ve been having a lot of conversations with students and folks across campus about under-serviced areas of campus,” said Roldan. “Places where students were coming across campus to get something to eat was a little inconvenient.”
The trend of university-run food trucks is not isolated to Kent State University. Many colleges across North America are seeing the benefits a mobile dining unit offers their student body and the popularity of such options. According to a Wall Street Journal article from August 22nd, 2012, nearly 100 colleges have their own food truck in use. This is compared to only about a dozen schools with food trucks only five years earlier. The statistics are courtesy of the National Association of College and University Food Services, which represents around 550 universities in North America.
The mobility of food trucks allows the businesses to tap into markets that wouldn’t be available with a traditional brick-and-mortar restaurant. Especially on college campuses, a food truck is a profitable endeavor. The demographic spending the most money at food trucks is the 25-34 year old group. They spend an average of $44 per month. Those under 25 spend comparably, about $39 per month. This is according to a survey done by the statistical site IBISWorld.com in 2014.
The food truck uses it’s Twitter account (@KSUFoodTruck) to communicate with student’s where it’ll be setting up shop for that day. With over a thousand followers, the account is a popular way for students to interact with the unique service offered to them by the university.
According to Roldan, Kent State’s food truck cost about $160,000 to go from idea to a fully operational dining mobile. The truck has a twenty-foot chassis and is completely functional as a kitchen. It features a convection oven, full range grill, fryers, everything Chef Booher needs to propagate his menu.
“We decided we really wanted to have a truck that changed with the seasons, with the availability of local items,” said Roldan. The Fork in the Road menu is diverse as it is globally influenced. He described it as global fusion. There are elements of classic Americana alongside Latin dishes with Asian elements involved. All these influences combine to create a healthy, palatable alternative option to the campus’s other dining options.
The truck, which began servicing students this semester in August, has averaged about three hours per day on campus. During those days it has served an average of 200 people and pulls in roughly $11,000 in total revenue. All of this considering the average cost of a dish is only five dollars. Fork in the Road has been present at all of Kent’s home football games. Roldan said the truck will be operational when there is not classes. As long as there is a demand on campus, the wheels will be rolling to satisfy that hunger.
The boom in the food truck industry has Starbucks, the coffee chain behemoth, testing the waters of mobile dining services at three universities in 2014. According to Bloomberg BusinessWeek, the corporation wants to further tap into the huge coffee market of college students. Of Starbucks’ nearly 11,500 store locations, only about 300 are located on college campuses. Depending on the success of their mobile coffee ventures at Arizona State University, James Madison University, and Coastal Carolina University, the chain could expand food truck services across the nation.
Kent State University has gone to lengths to ensure students have a variety of dining options across campus. They’re currently offering six different locations spread across campus for student’s to eat, including the mobile Fork in the Road. The Student Center offers a variety of places to choose from, including an Einstein Brothers Bagels, Subway, and a sushi booth. Student’s often flock to The Kent Market, located upstairs, for additional options.
The trend of universities becoming proprietors of food trucks is a sign that the wants and needs of the student body are being recognized by the powers that be. In Kent, Fork in the Road serves as a direct response to the need of convenient sustenance for students in the far corners of its broad campus. Across North America, mobile dining units have become staples in cityscapes and college campuses.The renaissance of the food truck is being taken seriously in culinary circles. Trucks like Kent State’s Fork in the Road prove that convenience, creativity, and sustenance can coexist in an affordable way.
Andrew is a journalism student at Kent State University, and wrote this in his JMC 26001 class in the Fall 2014 semester. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org