Why Have a School Food Truck?
The success of Boulder's Munchie Machine
It’s just before 11:00 a.m. on a snowy spring Friday in Boulder, Colorado when Boulder High School’s first lunch bell rings. Within seconds, students are pouring out the front doors headed towards the delicious smells and lively music coming from the eye-catching Munchie Machine, the Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) food truck. Dubbed “Munchie Machine” by the student body, the truck boasts its own Twitter, Facebook and Instagram pages, where daily menus and event schedules are posted. Today, Munchie followers have been eagerly awaiting the “hot off the grill” natural cheeseburgers since second period. The ordering begins.
The brainchild of BVSD Food Service Director Chef Ann Cooper and Head Chef Brandy Dreibelbis, BVSD’s food truck, aka Munchie Machine, serves hundreds of students delicious, USDA compliant lunches each week and is gaining in popularity with students and community members alike. With favorite dishes like the quinoa burger, pork BBQ sliders and bacon-grilled cheese, not to mention the delicious grain and fresh vegetable sides, Munchie is the trendy new spot for healthy, delicious meals.
- Boulder Valley School District
- Student Enrollment: 30,903
- Schools: 56 (52 with regular Food Service programs)
- Free and Reduced Percentage (F/R): 19.93%
- Average Daily Lunch Participation (ADP) 8,756
Chefs Ann and Brandy first envisioned the food truck as a way to increase lunch participation at the district’s five largest high schools, which each have an open campus, meaning students can either eat at school or go out for lunch. “We were only capturing 15-20 percent of our high school students for lunch and we wanted to increase this participation,” says Chef Brandy. With food trucks gaining in popularity and quickly becoming a local food trend, the chefs thought a district sponsored food truck parked just outside the high schools’ front doors was the perfect solution. “Kids can still leave the building, go outside, eat from a food truck and access their lunch accounts, but be served something a little different.” The hope was to catch kids at the food truck before they head off campus for less than healthy favorites like soda, chips and processed fast food. The food truck provides a USDA compliant reimbursable meal – which means students who pay full price and those who qualify for the Free and Reduced Lunch Meal Program can enjoy the meals just as they would in the lunchroom.
A day in the Life of Munchie
Arriving at Munchie’s home base – one of BVSD’s Production Kitchens – at 7:15 each weekday morning, the food truck team starts prepping food for that day’s lunch service, also taking to social media to post the day’s menu. The menu selection is robust - with a rotation of about 20 recipes from adobo-braised beef tacos and BBQ pulled pork to buffalo chicken sliders and quinoa burgers - three items are offered each day and one is vegetarian. Gluten free is available too.
Tasks as varied as cleaning the snow off the truck (and on this day, waiting for the locks to thaw) and making sure the equipment is working to running the generators and setting up the register are performed quickly and efficiently by the seasoned food truck staff. Munchie pulls out of the Production Kitchen in plenty of time to arrive at the school about 15 minutes before lunch starts. Once in position, the team fires up the grills, starts the music, and starts on final food prep. While much of the food is prepared in the production kitchen, the pressing of sandwiches, grilling of burgers and quesadillas happens on the food truck – offering fresh, hot off the grill options for students. When the bell rings, set up is complete and service begins!
After a successful day, the team packs up and returns to home base to clean up and complete production records. Munchie operates on a set schedule, cycling between the district’s largest high schools four days a week and one day a week at the District Education Center for lunch hour and serving up breakfast burritos to a local middle school every Wednesday morning. Once a week the team washes the truck and fills it with gas and diesel.
The Food Truck Team
BVSD hired two dedicated staff members to man the truck, developing a very specific job description, which differs from that of the regular kitchen staff. Staff qualifications run the gamut from being able to prep and cook the food, to driving the truck on busy roads and maintaining the truck inside and out. Also, “Truck service staff personality is key,” and the ability to provide exceptional customer service with food truck style cheer is a crucial element to success.
Rosie Harris and Nancy DeVita fill this role for BVSD, and have developed a great rapport with the students – knowing their names, listening to their ideas for new food items and welcoming comments to change the music so it’s relevant and enjoyed by students at each school. “I dig being outside with the kids. I love seeing them trudge through the snow with big smiles on their faces to get lunch from us, or race each other to be first, or take shelter from the rain under our awning while waiting for their order, or basking in the sun on the school lawns looking satisfied from what they just ate from the truck. I think like most food service workers you're happy when you're customers are happy!” says Harris. Coming up for seconds, thirds, and even fourths, the kids seem satisfied indeed.
Tips From Chef Brandy for a Successful District Food Truck Program
Purchasing Your Truck: Thanks to a generous $75,000 grant from Whole Foods Market, BVSD was able to purchase their truck in March of 2014. Chef Brandy recommends searching Craigslist ads for used food trucks – that’s how she came across Munchie. With a price tag of $49,000, BVSD purchased the truck and spent the remaining grant funds on needed equipment, repairs and a $10,000 “wrap”, freshening up the exterior with a new branded design.
Truck Size: Chef Brandy encourages districts to be thoughtful about the truck size. BVSD’s food truck is about 5 feet longer than typical trucks (which come in around 24 feet). Through experience the team has learned that Munchie’s length makes her difficult to maneuver in some situations.
Equipment: BVSD’s truck came with equipment (a deep fryer) that was removed and replaced with a flat top griddle. BVSD chose to install two flat tops but has come to realize the second griddle pulls a lot of unnecessary electricity, and for that reason is seldom used. BVSD also purchased an awning that can be rolled out to shade the service window/condiment area on hot sunny days.
Know Your Local Regulations: “Be aware of city/county health and fire codes and sales taxes rules – there are several different licenses that are required by your City and County,” advises Chef Brandy. From local regulations to other factors, be ready to expect the unexpected. For example, BVSD learned through a mandatory fire inspection that Munchie need an “ansul” fire suppressant system installed. At a cost of $5,000, this was a big hit to the budget.
Engage your District Transportation Department: From the beginning, Chef Brandy made sure the District’s Transportation Department was on board, since they’d be responsible for truck maintenance. Not only do they service the truck when needed, the District Fleet Manager assisted with the initial purchase, offering his advice and input on whether Munchie fit the bill.
The goals for the BVSD food truck were three-fold and since the March 2014 launch, have all been met:
- Increase lunch participation at the high schools
- Add an income source for the district food services department
- Serve as a new marketing tool for the “School Food Project” – the district’s food service program.
Capturing High School Attention and Appetites
Average Daily Participation (ADP) at high schools is up and the food truck (which serves an average of 80 students/day and elevates exposure of the school food program) is no doubt contributing to the increase.
Catering for Additional Income
“We have to find ways to be sustainable year round – school events, community events – that money helps to keep us going,” says Chef Brandy. Munchie Machines’ catering calendar is packed with over 30 events each year, including PTA dinners, district fall festivals, Farmer’s Markets, and local sporting events like the annual Iron Man and Yoga Festival. These are all great ways to offer healthy food to the community while bringing in extra revenue that goes towards purchasing quality ingredients for school meals.
Munchie the Mobile Marketing Machine
“The Food Truck is basically a mobile billboard, a free marketing tool out in the community,” says Chef Brandy. Munchie gets a lot of attention – from locals commenting as the truck drives by to interest from national media outlets, the buzz helps raise awareness of and engagement in the district’s school food service program. “The food truck is a conversation piece,” Chef Brandy explains. “When people come to the truck for food at community events, they’re often curious and asking questions about the truck, who it serves… leading to questions about the School Food Project in general.”
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