By Amelia Levin
Now several years in, the food truck craze has become an integral part of the nation’s culinary fabric.
As consumers around the country continue to seek out the chef-driven, creative and best of all, comforting food these trucks offer, culinary schools are now getting into the game, launching mobile platforms to feed both their students and the community at large.
Central New Mexico Community College has taken that one step further, launching an internship program for its entrepreneurial-driven culinary students who want to learn the ins and outs of a food truck business, and even get their skin in the game with the real-life experience of cooking on the trucks themselves.
What started three years ago as a pilot internship program for the students has grown into a comprehensive program rivaled by few other culinary schools.
“A lot of our students have aspirations to open their own restaurants someday,” Donna Diller, dean of CNM’s School of Business & Information Technology, which oversees the Culinary Arts program, has said. “It takes a large investment to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant. The food truck industry can offer some of our students a more affordable way to get their own business going and get their foot in the door. This can provide them a way to develop a following of patrons while learning the food industry.”
The Culinary Arts department partnered with the Street Food Institute, a non-profit organization helping underserved young adults fulfill their culinary professional goals, which provided the program’s first food truck. Through the program at the ACFEF-accredited CNM, students learn all aspects of operating a food truck, from developing initial business plans and learning the culture and culinary techniques of the growing street food movement.
“We have had a few students from the program go on to open their own food trucks, while others have gone on to become shift managers and partners in other food truck operations,” says CNM chef instructor Scott Clapp, who oversees the truck internship and Street Food Institute truck.
The program consists of three educational components supporting the food truck internship:
- a traditional entrepreneurship theory class
- a one-credit lab where students can explore and learn how to operate food trucks in the field
- extended internship for additional credits and work hours on the trucks
Students in the entrepreneurship class interested in getting hands-on experience on food trucks can elect to add on the lab and/or the internship, Clapp says.
While the Street Food Institute operates three trucks through a partnership with the state of New Mexico and county, through CNM’s food truck program, they get the chance to help develop the menus, social media platforms and other aspects of the business outside of just assisting on the truck during service in Albuquerque.
“The students get exposure to a lot of scratch cooking and working with local farmers so they know how to plan menus seasonally,” says Clapp.
He notes the college has been planning a secondary, more elaborate internship where students will develop the concept for their own food truck, write the business plan and even test out their concept on an existing truck in the market.
In addition to some minimal cooking and serving on the trucks, students will develop recipes for different street foods like tacos, bowls, bar-type food and sandwiches, going through large-scale preparation in the school’s commissary kitchen. During menu changes, the students will vote on the dishes they think will work best on the truck, and those are run as specials or even become permanent parts of the menu.
No, the students do not drive the trucks; they are supervised by a shift manager or chef instructor. “There can be as few as a truck manager and two students, or as many as four or five students on the truck at one time if they are catering lunches, weddings and other events,” Clapp says.
Another major takeaway from the truck internship is learning how to work in tight spaces and go through the repetitive motions of preparing the same dish over and over again with speed; things they’ll need to learn if they go on to work at top restaurants. Students can also rotate through “stations” on the truck, from grilling on a flat-top to garnishing and serving customers face-to-face.
“I teach intermediate cooking, and I have noticed that while some students may struggle in that class, they flourish on the food truck because they get that repetition, something culinary schools don’t teach in classes, but which you have to learn on the job,” Clapp says. “That’s what makes the truck internship program so invaluable – we’re giving them the opportunity to practice what they learn in the classroom.”
And, what makes the internship truly unique is the constant contact students will have with their chef instructors during work on the trucks.
“In traditional internships at restaurants and hotels, we won’t see the students for 15 weeks,” Clapp says. “At the end of the internship, they turn in their timesheet and employer evaluation, but that’s it. With the food truck program, they get to discuss with us the challenges and questions they have from working on the truck and get real-time feedback.”
Amelia Levin is a Chicago-based freelance writer, cookbook author, former magazine editor and certified chef who writes about food, foodservice and the restaurant industry. Her work has appeared in a variety of magazines and newspapers, as well as online. She started her career in journalism as a hard news reporter for the Chicago Tribune covering police, fire, courts and City Hall, and she served for five years as the senior editor for the former Reed Business Information’s food and hospitality group of magazines (Restaurants & Institutions, Foodservice Equipment & Supplies, Chain Leader and HOTELS).