By Matthew Miller | Lansing State Journal
EAST LANSING — The Eat at State On-The-Go food truck was born as a a kind of conciliatory gesture.
The cafeteria at Michigan State University’s Shaw Hall was closed last fall for renovations. The university isn’t exactly short on dining halls but the people in culinary services nonetheless wanted students living in Shaw to have another option at their doorstep.
They rented a food truck, gave it an unwieldy name and had it parked outside by the third week of September.
The truck turned out to be something more than a temporary fix. Untethered from Shaw since the dormitory’s dining hall reopened in January, it now moves between locations in the center of campus.
Eat at State also has developed its own following. Most particularly, its cheeseburger has developed a following.
The beef in the smoked cheddar cheeseburger comes from MSU’s herds, either on campus or in the Upper Peninsula. The smoked cheddar and sharp cheddar (the official name leaves out the latter) come at least partly from MSU dairy cows and entirely from the MSU Dairy Store. The greens come from the university’s Student Organic Farm.
Last month, the burger won top honors in the National Association of College and University Food Services’ best local foods recipe contest.
“We wanted (the menu) to be something comfort-food related, kind of grab-and-go pub food,” said Kurt Kwiatkowski, corporate chef for culinary services unit, which runs food service operations in campus dining halls, coffee shops and convenience stores. But he and his staff also wanted to tap into the rising demand for local, organic food – food with a discernible place of origin.
“We’re an ag college,” he said. “We have it right here.”
And so the grilled cheese sandwich has MSU Gruyère and pesto made with spinach from the Student Organic Farm. The greens in the salad and the chicken sandwich are from the organic farm, as well. The desserts are from MSU Bakers.
The strategy has inspired others. A second university-owned food truck, dubbed Food for Thought, hit the campus streets and parking lots in March. It is run by the Spartan Hospitality Group, which also runs the State Room in the Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center.
The menu veers toward the international. The sourcing is largely local.
“The organic farms raises seven to 10 pigs for us each year that are harvested in the fall, so thus far all the pork we’ve served out of this truck has been from the organic farm,” said Matt Wilson, the sous chef in charge of the Food for Thought truck. The truck uses herb grown in a hoop house next to Bailey Hall, cheese and ice cream from the MSU Dairy, bread from MSU’s bakery.
In one sense, the Food for Thought truck is “an extension of the brand of food we do,” Wilson said. The Spartan Hospitality Group does catering on campus and beyond and giving the general public another chance to sample its wares seemed to make sense.
“But one of the main reasons we did it is because it’s fun,” said Mike Clyne, the Spartan Hospitality Group’s senior executive chef.
The people running the Eat at State On-The-Go food truck learned quickly that weather is not incidental to the success of a venue that asks its customers to wait outside. The truck served an average of 115 people a day during the school year. On warm and sunny days, the average was closer to 200.
And so summer, despite the smaller numbers of students, is in some ways a prime season. On a recent Thursday, parked in a shady spot in front of the MSU Auditorium, the truck was doing a brisk lunchtime business, mostly in cheeseburgers.
“When you’re eating our food,” said chef manager Kari Magee, “you’re tasting MSU.”