The University of Connecticut's dining halls turn out approximately 80,000 meals a week, from waffles and Yankee pot roast to pizza and — yes — bacon jalapeño macaroni and cheese. And with the addition of two new campus food trucks serving ice cream and exotically flavored tacos, students, faculty, staff and visitors have more gourmet choices than ever.
C. Dennis Pierce, executive director of dining services, says the university is actually "late in the game" to the food truck trend, pointing out that the University of Massachusetts Amherst has two campus-run mobile eateries. Dining services requested funding for a food truck three years ago, he said, and it was finally approved for the 2015-2016 school year.
President Susan Herbst, a "big proponent" of UConn's Dairy Bar, was also looking for a way to make the iconic ice cream shop more mobile. When students returned to the Storrs campus for the fall semester, they found the purple-and-yellow trucks parked in busy, visible locations for lunch, dinner and late-night service.
The Blue Cow ice cream truck's menu of cups, cones and sundaes ($3.50 to $5.35) was simple, but the fare for the Food For Thought truck required further contemplation. "When we started talking about the menu, it was important to not have it be traditional burgers and fries," said Charles Couture, assistant director of retail operations. "We wanted it to be unique and different. We wanted it to be something … they couldn't get in the dining halls, can't get anywhere else on campus."
After rounds of taste tests, the team decided to launch the truck with a variety of upscale tacos, with flavors influenced by world cuisines.
Tacos come two to an order, with choice of flour or corn tortillas, priced at $6.95 and $7.95. Early best-sellers include the Cabo Beach, with slow-braised short rib, queso fresco, pickled red onion, candied Serrano peppers and shredded cabbage, and a Thai chicken taco with slow-roasted marinated meat, Thai kale veggie slaw, peanut chili sauce, cilantro and scallions. Ale-battered Baja fish tacos are popular, too, and a Vietnamese-inspired "banh mi" with slow-braised pork belly, sriracha mayo and vegetables is served on a steamed bun. The truck also sells sides of chips, salsa and churros, and featured specials appear weekly, like kimchi beef, chorizo and Caribbean pork belly with mango salsa. Vegan and vegetarian choices are available.
There's another, more unconventional protein option on the truck: crispy, seasoned crickets, available as an add-on for 99 cents. Pierce describes the taste and texture as "like roasted sunflower seeds."
"A lot of people will say 'Ooh, I don't want to do that,' and some people will say, 'Bring it on,'" Couture said of the eccentric offering. "It's definitely something to talk about."
The trucks' sales are separate from traditional student meal plans; customers can pay with cash, Visa and MasterCard, and Husky Bucks, money from a debit-like account used to make purchases on and off-campus at participating venues.
The Blue Cow parks close to Food For Thought near the library on weekdays for lunchtime sales, but since students have access to Dairy Bar treats in the student union with meal points, Pierce said the ice cream truck has been more "event-driven" on and off-campus. It was popular at a recent campus open house, for example. In the final weeks of September, dining services employees brought the truck to several of UConn's branch campuses, including Stamford, Avery Point in Groton, West Hartford and Waterbury. (Couture notes that securing off-campus permits can get tricky, as towns and cities have varying regulations.)
For dining services employees, the flexibility of the trucks is "huge," Pierce said. "It's an added resource when we need mobility," particularly for catering in non-traditional locations or as a backup kitchen option if the need arises.
While food trucks are trendy at the moment, Pierce said the university specifically selected a "state-of-the-art truck" with maximum equipment capabilities, with long-term plans in mind. "We're limited [only] by our imagination," he said.