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‘Doomed to fail’: Food trucks struggle in new locations

<p>Food trucks have been relocated from their previous spots on Chapel Drive to Kilgo parking lot and Swift Avenue.&nbsp;</p>

Food trucks have been relocated from their previous spots on Chapel Drive to Kilgo parking lot and Swift Avenue. 

Several food truck owners serving Duke’s campus have complained that their new locations have drastically hurt their profitability.

In preparation for the West Union's reopening in August, food truck owners were notified in July that there would be changes to their assigned locations, which had previously been on Chapel Drive, but did not receive a final schedule until mid-August. Several truck owners, including those from Parlez-Vous Crêpe, The Humble Pig and Mixed Korean Bistro, noted that there were problems at an assigned location in the Kilgo parking lot and that they were misinformed about potential demand near the new assignment on Swift Avenue.

The food truck owners said that they requested a joint meeting with dining administrators, which was denied. Instead, each truck was granted an individual meeting.

Jody Argote, Parlez-Vous Crêpe’s owner, said her truck was sent an initial schedule in August that included 15 minutes for her truck to pack up and move between Swift and Kilgo. After responding that this was impossible, she was sent a new schedule with times on both Wednesdays and Thursdays, prompting her to cancel prior engagements on Thursdays. She was later sent a third schedule Aug. 24.

Argote attempted to access the Kilgo lot on Wednesday, but found it inaccessible because she pulls a trailer and other vehicles blocked the site.

“We live an hour away,” Argote said. “We had trailer full of food that we had to turn around and throw out. That was not only a loss of sales but also a loss of our food costs.”

Director of Dining Services Robert Coffey wrote in an email that Duke Dining met with each food truck operator before the Fall semester to review the locations and times. He noted that the food trucks had suggestions to the calendar rotation schedule and that Duke Dining listened and made the changes requested by each truck.

He and parking enforcement officers have been on site in the evenings to ensure that the trucks can park in their designated areas, he said. 

‘Bait and switch’

Ross McCarthy, co-owner of The Humble Pig with his wife Jessica, wrote in an email that they understood Duke’s desire to capitalize on their West Union investment. Because of that, he asked Duke Dining if they should prepare to lose their contracts and gear for a “professional exit,” but Duke assured him that they could continue to operate. 

McCarthy noted that conversations with Duke Dining have been fragmented, what he called a “bait and switch.” Now, the truck is under contract to operate in an area—Swift Avenue and Kilgo Quadrangle on Wednesdays and Sundays—with too little demand.

“Duke Dining reassured our presence on campus, and then changed our service locations and schedule in the last moment,” he wrote. “They even changed our point of contacts, breaking any continuity to our conversations. They misled my company into booking services that are producing no revenue. They are asking us to operate at a loss, while they still collect 17.2% on all sales. They have set up a system under terms they know are unsustainable.”

Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs, wrote in an email he was "certain" food trucks were given notice Duke would be returning to the "previous and long-standing schedules" from before the West Union initially closed. 

However, McCarthy wrote that had he known this was going to happen, he would not have passed on the former business he ran to come to Duke Tuesday evenings, adding he was concerned about paying the staff he employs.

When asked whether parking along Chapel Drive was being shut down, Vice President for Administration Kyle Cavanaugh explained in an email that there are discussions about limiting access "for a combination of safety reasons."

With the most recent schedule, Argote said her truck is scheduled to be at Swift on first and third Wednesdays of each month and at Kilgo second and fourth Wednesdays. She said this will likely be confusing to students and detrimental to business. The schedule is also at odds with what was specified in an amended contract she signed, she said. 

'Their own market'

Brian Taylor—current chair of DUSDAC, Trinity ‘16 and a current master’s student in the Nicholas School of the Environment—said that the new location for the food trucks was determined by parking availability and potential for demand. In addition, moving the trucks away from the West Union allowed them to capture their own market.

“By putting them somewhere where there’s not already a vendor, they get their own market rather than have to compete with 13 new restaurants that just opened up,” he said in a prior interview with The Chronicle.

Food truck owners had a different take. Several explained that the Swift Avenue location was also a point of misinformation on the part of administrators, who apparently claimed 600 students lived near there. Mixed Korean Bistro owner Ji-Myung Kim—Trinity ‘04 and Fuqua ‘12—wrote in a letter to The Chronicle that there were not nearly that many students. 

To illustrate his point, Kim wrote that last year on average the truck fed 300 people a night. Last week, he wrote, they only covered five on one Monday. 

Rick Johnson, associate vice president of student affairs for Housing, Dining and Residence life, wrote in an email that food truck vendors "were never promised 600 students." He noted that the actual number of students living in near Swift is about 80, but there are about 600 potential customers in the Swift area including 300 Swift and 301 Swift apartments as well as other apartments next door.

Although he noted he was not familiar with specific promises made by Duke Dining, Moneta wrote that it is up to students at the end of the day whether to use a food truck or not. 

"There is a reality that has to be acknowledged. West Union is back open and with 13 restaurants of incredible diversity and quality," he wrote. "Our priority will always be to support our on campus partners with food trucks and Merchants-on-Points as supplemental options for later evening dining. I recognize that in this transition back to the model historically deployed, some of the food trucks will not find the same level of business. That's unfortunate, and we hope that those who partner with us will do well enough to sustain their presence."

Getting out of a contract with Duke Dining requires one month’s written notice, Argote said. Hence, she explained, she would have to absorb four more weeks of low sales figures if she does attempt to leave. 

Argote said that she hopes to find a way to make serving Duke work, but that the truck is currently locked into an unsustainable arrangement.

“In my opinion, it's kind of a set-up that we are doomed to fail,” Argote said. “I would much prefer to just be told, ‘you know we've got this West Union, we put a lot of money into it, we don’t want competition from the food trucks, sorry' instead of having us sign these contracts, giving up nights where we could be making sales elsewhere.'’’

Gus Megaloudis, the owner of Gussy's food truck, noted he did not receive the finalized food truck schedule until about a week before school started. 

As to why the trucks wish to renew contracts, Kim noted that Duke gave them a “take it or leave it” option and “started contacting trucks on the waiting list” following meetings where they voiced their concerns with the new locations. 

François Kerckhof, owner of Belgian Waffle Crafters, explained that his truck has yet to receive the new contract but was strongly encouraged to go along with the new locations if he wanted to continue serving at Duke—formerly his best location. Megaloudis also noted a new contract has not been officially signed, but that food trucks are scheduled far in advance so he has not been pursuing other opportunities. This means he has to either serve at Duke or not have a place to serve at all, he said. 

“They all have year-long contracts, so unless one of them were to decide to leave we have no plans, no intentions of removing any of them,” Taylor said. “We’d like to see them see out their contracts. We certainly have no plans to kick anyone off any time soon.”

Megaloudis said that he has decided to come to campus on his scheduled days out of "loyalty" to the students, but does not know how long this will be sustainable. 

West Union

Kim wrote that while he understood the importance Duke places on the West Union, simply relocating food trucks far away from it is unfair when they have been well-received by Duke students.

“We are not asking for favors. We are simply asking for a fair fighting chance,” Kim wrote. “Students have choices. And they choose us. The University should not hinder their options.”

The owners said the decision to bring new vendors to the West Union serving food similar to that already served by food trucks added insult to injury. Ginger + Soy serves similar food to Chirba Chirba and Mixed Korean, Cafe serves crêpes like that of Parlez-Vous Crêpe and The Skillet serves barbecue similar to The Humble Pig.

Johnson noted that the food in West Union is similar to that served by the food trucks because "venues and food offerings in West Union were developed with student input and represent popular foods that students asked for."

Kerchof added that he does not see food trucks as direct competition to traditional brick-and-mortar restaurants, since patrons have a different mindset about eating from a mobile location. 

Because they helped provide food to students while West Union was under construction, Megaloudis said the food trucks deserve better treatment.

"When we were on campus and Duke was going through the transitions and there was a shortfall of food options on campus, it was food trucks that picked up the slack and helped the University get through this transition period," he said. "Now that the transition period is done, it's like they put us in a position to fail."

Claire Ballentine and Abigail Xie contributed reporting. This article was updated Sept. 6 at 3:30 p.m. to include quotes from Johnson and 6:00 p.m. to include quotes from Coffey. 

Adam Beyer | Digital Content Director

Adam Beyer is a senior public policy major and is The Chronicle's Digital Strategy Team director.


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