Food trucks roll on to campus to meet demand

The U has stationed two trucks in the Knoll area of campus, with more on the way.
Rick Vang serves a customer at the Vellee Deli food truck Tuesday outside Williamson Hall. Vellee Deli is one of two food trucks that University Dining Service has brought to campus to provide more dining choices in the Knoll area.
By
  • Brian Butterfield
By
September 19, 2012

Tewodros Negash has cooked in Ethiopia, Djibouti, Egypt and Sweden, but when he set up his Afro-fusion food truck, the Cave Café, on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus, he was asked to leave.

It turns out he was just ahead of the curve.

One year later, Negash, who goes by “Chef Teddy,” is selling his food on campus again — this time with the University’s blessing. The Cave Café is one of two food trucks University Dining Services has brought to campus. The trucks are part of a five-year plan to bring more on-campus dining options to the Knoll area.

The Cave Café has been parked outside Williamson Hall every Monday and at the Church Street Farmers Market every Wednesday since this summer. A week before classes started, Vellee Deli began selling food near Williamson on Tuesdays. Like other on-campus restaurants, both trucks accept FlexDine.

Will Xiong, co-owner of Vellee Deli, said he and his girlfriend always wanted to serve their food at the University but didn’t think it would be possible.

“It’s like their own little city,” Xiong said. “They kind of have their own little rules. So you couldn’t get into the U.”

‘Many hoops to jump through’

Getting the food trucks to campus took a year of negotiations.

“There were many hoops to jump through and many departments to talk to,” said UDS marketing manager Heather Dickson.

She said UDS had to get permission from Facilities Management, Parking and Transportation Services, the Department of Environmental Health and Safety and University police.

UDS brought the trucks to campus as sub-contractors for Aramark, which provides food service to campus.

The trucks weren’t required to make any menu changes, although they all must sell Coca-Cola products as part of the University’s contract with the company.

Unlike other popular campus lunch spots, including those in Coffman Union, the trucks give a percentage of their sales to Aramark and the University, Dickson said. Restaurants in Coffman and other University buildings pay a flat franchise fee.

More convenient for students

Students eating at Vellee Deli on Tuesday said they were excited about the trucks.

“The dorm is like ‘Oh, I guess I’ll have a burger again’ or ‘I guess I’ll have pizza again,’” said political science freshman Jack Fate. “Here it’s like, ‘I’ll have a Dragon Melt!’”

Youth studies senior Goly Yang said the efficient service and accessibility of the food trucks makes it a better option for students. Yang used to walk to Coffman to eat lunch after her Tuesday class in Nicholson Hall, but for the last two weeks she has eaten at Vellee Deli.

Yang isn’t the only student who prefers the trucks to the student union.

“I feel like at Coffman, a lot of [restaurants] are rip-offs. This seems like better quality food,” said Nate Madsen, a business and marketing education senior.

Madsen said that without the food trucks, he wouldn’t have time to eat lunch on campus.

Both students also said they wanted to see a larger variety of trucks on other parts of campus.

A five-year plan

Since the Cave Café and Vellee Deli arrived on campus, UDS has received renewed interest from food trucks, Dickson said. UDS hopes to eventually have trucks in the Williamson location every day of the week, she said.

The five-year plan also includes a new dining plan for faculty and staff, along with the forthcoming “Fresh Food Company” at the 17th Avenue residence hall.

Because of the extensive negotiations it took to secure the Williamson location for food trucks, Dickson said there were no plans to bring the trucks to St. Paul or other parts of campus.

Building a reputation

Business has been slow to start, but both business owners said they’re optimistic that sales will pick up as more students discover the trucks.

Negash called selling on campus a “learning process,” with the potential to be more profitable than downtown.

He is working with UDS to try to expand his hours and park on Church Street more often.

Negash said the truck makes about $400 more per day at the farmer’s market than in the Williamson spot.

The truck owners said they plan to stay on campus as long as the weather allows.

“It’s a little different here [than downtown],” Dickson said. “Because our peak time is when students are on campus, which is their off time.”

Dickson said as the weather cools and downtown residents move to the skyways, she hopes the campus foot traffic will pique more interest in food trucks.

“I don’t think a lot of people know what the food trucks really are yet,” Xiong said.

“Each time we go into a new market, it’s the same thing: It takes a little while to build up your reputation.”

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