Outside the lunchbox

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 With Newcomb Hall undergoing an $18 million renovation, UVA Dining Services came up with a student meal solution that falls decidedly outside of the lunchbox. Beginning this fall, on weekdays from 11am to 2pm, six trucks with names like Steak Me Home Tonight, Got Dumplings? and Nacho Panda—park around the UVA Amphitheater to offer students a variety of foods, from Asian-style dumplings to homemade doughnuts.

The food truck phenomenon that has taken over the country has descended upon UVA. With six trucks to choose from, students say the new food experience is “convenient” and “cool.”

“We looked at other ways of building capacity at lunch time when we need to feed so many students,” said Brent Beringer, UVA Dining Services director.  “It seemed to be a good fit, and it was something that we wanted to try anyway.”

Beringer said food trucks have become familiar thanks to heavy media coverage—take, for instance, “The Great Food Truck Race.” Beringer said UVA could have installed a temporary facility to deal with the Newcomb renovation, but instead opted to offer meals on wheels.

“It’s just on the forefront,” he said. “It’s new, it’s exciting and it feels fresh to students.”

Judging by the scene on a recent afternoon, the students like their options. About 25 people stood in line for a taste of the popular Got Dumplings? menu—chicken curry pork or shrimp and chives dumplings. Sophomore Nicholas Williams, who ordered a Korean BBQ quesadilla, said having food trucks is not only “innovative” and “convenient,” but also a lesson in personal finance. 

“It teaches [students] to balance their money and it gives them a different feel of food,” he said. Sophomore and food truck newbie Britton Vermaaten, who settled on a BBQ hot dog and a Dr. Pepper from Steak Me Home Tonight, said the trucks “add a lot of diversity to the food choices” at UVA and “they are pretty well priced.” 

If the options give UVA students a bit more convenience, they pose a new challenge to the cooks. Joseph Mills, owner of Last Call Dogs and co-owner of Nacho Panda, said his team has had to refocus its strategy to offer quicker, more efficient service.

Paying for food truck meals has also gotten quicker. Beringer said all trucks are now part of the University Meal Plan, and accept “Plus Dollars,” which students can use for University meal options outside of the dining halls. “That’s a benefit to [the food trucks], and in return they pay a commission to the University,” said Beringer.

Although Beringer said vendor agreements would not allow him to share financial information, he said sales have already exceeded expectations in just a few weeks.

“There are lines out there every day.”  

Mills, who opened Last Call Dogs in 2008, said he is interested in expanding and bringing in more diverse food choices. “We are excited to be on the leading edge of it, and we look forward to getting bigger and better in the future,” he said. 

As for the future of food trucks at UVA, Beringer said it will depend on whether students still find them exciting a year from now, and whether this “kind of commercial activity that happens so close to the Lawn,” fits the school’s long-term vision. However, Beringer said additional local vendors have expressed interest in joining the program. 

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