By Warren Johnston | Valley News
Hanover — Two seniors at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth have rolled out a startup venture that is providing other students with nutritious fare along with a side of basic entrepreneurial principles.
After more than a year of planning, obtaining financing and gaining regulatory approval, The Box, a food truck, recently started serving quick, fresh Mediterranean-based cuisine on the Dartmouth College campus.
And judging by the lines at the food window, the venture appears heading for a successful run.
The food truck, which blossomed from a class project, was started by Eric Winn and Mike Parshley with the help from other students, professors and a cadre of financial backers.
Along with providing food that hadn’t been available on campus or in Hanover before, the venture is designed to involve student workers, allowing them to gain the experience of being involved with every aspect of the business, particularly marketing and management, Winn said.
“With the help from Tuck students, undergraduates are getting the hands-on experience of running a real business, and we’re planning for this project to be ongoing after we leave. Although we want to make money and to give our investors a return on their money, our ultimate goal is to make Dartmouth a better place” by being a lasting part of the community that inspires future student-led ventures, he said.
The Box is an accelerated course for both Tuck and undergraduate students in the life of a startup business, said Tuck associate professor Steven J. Kahl, who was one of the instructors who worked with Winn and Parshley to make the project a reality.
“They have had the full startup experience from dealing with suppliers, organizing a team (of employees) with all the HR stuff as well as the general management of the operation. They’re even having to plan for succession,” something most startups don’t face in the first few years, Kahl said.
“They’ve had the experience of raising money and financing as well as the experience of owning a machine (the truck) and keeping it operating. They’re also learning about food and where it comes from, and they’re doing something that everybody loves — producing great food,” he said.
Winn had a background in food sales. After graduating from Dartmouth in 2004, he worked in Keene, N.H., for C&S Wholesale Grocers for nine years before returning to Tuck. He plans to return to the company after he graduates in June.
Parshley, who went to Colgate University, has a background in finance, and he’ll return to his job with the global consulting firm Bain & Co. in Boston after Tuck’s graduation.
Even with their backgrounds, they have found getting The Box rolling has been a learning experience.
“We know a lot more today than we did three weeks ago when we opened,” Winn said.
Like most new businesses, The Box required a lot of research and planning before it could be pulled together.
They started with a business plan and went from there. Winn, Parshley and other Tuck students had to find the truck, determine the funding needed and meet federal, state and Hanover permitting requirements. They had to design the truck and figure out what equipment was needed.
The menu was essential, and they got professional help with that when they brought Tyler Harvey on board as the chef.
The also had to make sure there was a demand for their product, evaluate the competition and develop a marketing strategy.
The marketing research included a survey that received more than 600 responses, 11 focus group meetings, discussions with Hanover restaurant owners and taste-testing events.
The research was in keeping with national trends in the restaurant industry, which show strong support in their target market for ventures like The Box.
The National Restaurant Association’s annual forecast for 2014 based on surveys found that most people, 82 percent of those in the 18 to 34 age group, want more healthy options when they go out to eat, and 79 percent of that same age group have purchased food from a truck.
Food trucks are just for fairs any more. They are one of the fastest-growing segments of the restaurant industry, and they are proliferating in the major cities across the country, particularly in the Northeast and West, the forecast says.
The trucks also account for about 1 percent of annual national restaurant sales that are projected to reach $683.4 billion this year. (See related graphic, page C5.)
Once the founders of The Box had estimated the capital costs and expenses of the venture, they had to raise the money, which they did from friends and family investors and with a Kickstarter campaign that raised $16,120 from 204 backers, exceeding their $15,000 goal.
In the Kickstarter proposal, Winn and Parshley estimated that to get the project off of the ground would cost $150,000.
They purchased a used delivery truck that was refurbished and converted to a food truck by the Lebanon, Pa., firm Fancy Food Trucks. A new truck would have cost about $150,000, Winn said last week. After the truck was outfitted with some extra equipment, they paid $70,000, according to the Kickstarter campaign.
The Box, with its beige and gray exterior that sports the distinctive logo, has a gleaming stainless steel commercial kitchen inside from which some of the menu is prepared and served by students. Most of the items are prepared daily in a larger rented kitchen by Harvey.
In addition to marketing and management responsibilities, The Box is providing a paid part-time staff of about 25 to 30 students opportunities to work with Harvey to get involved with not just planning and cooking the food, but also finding a steady supply of locally sourced products that fit the budget and the menu, Parshley said.
Harvey, who is from Hanover and whose fiance is a first-year Tuck student, brought the culinary vision to The Box and its emphasis on serving healthy Mediterranean-style cuisine. She’s been working in restaurants in Washington, D.C., and Colorado for the last seven years since graduating from Georgetown University.
While in the past her experience has been largely confined to the kitchen, The Box gives her the opportunity to be involved in other aspects of the restaurant business, such as marketing, logo design and the pain and suffering of getting open, Harvey said last week.
“When you’re starting up, you come up against all kinds of problems, and we prepared for everything that could go wrong going wrong,” she said. “There were times I felt like my brain was swelling, but now that we’re open, hopefully, things seem to be going well.”
Harvey wanted to provide food that people would eat daily, rather than just occasionally. “The problem that I found when I was working in restaurants was that I was cooking food that I wouldn’t want to eat every day. It was good, and great to eat on occasion, but it was too rich to eat on a regular basis.
“We’re trying to do something that is clean and healthy. We avoid fats and use spices, olive oil and lemon juice instead. We will be changing the menu and offering a lot of variety. We make everything from scratch, and I’m already working with some local farmers to provide us with produce,” she said.
The Box has a varying menu of sandwiches, soups and salads at lunch and dinner from a site on the Tuck Mall beside Silsby Hall and near the Baker Library. There also are plans to offer a limited menu at night for another location. The early research showed that there is a demand for food on campus late at night.
“We will move the truck to Webster Avenue (near the fraternity houses) once we start doing late night, and with the school’s permission, might expand to other locations around campus in the future,” Parshley said in an email last week. Students will be informed about the location of The Box through social media.
The early reviews of the food have been good, said Kahl, who, in addition to teaching at Tuck, has mastered the art of cooking pork shoulders slowly over low heat. A version of the dish is on The Box’s menu.
“I really enjoyed the pulled pork sandwich with cannellini bean puree, pesto and roasted kale. I’ve eaten a lot of pulled pork, but I’d never had it that way before. It was really good. And the giant chocolate chip salt oat cookie is great.
“I’m excited about it,” Kahl said. “(The Box) is a great education asset, but at the end of the day, they’re providing a good product.”