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NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Sources say that the Dining Services division of Rutgers University is planning to open their own “grease truck,” in an interesting move timed to complement the relocation of the famous food trucks.
NewBrunswickToday.com has obtained a photograph of the truck, named the “Knight Wagon,” that may soon join or possibly replace longtime favorites like RU Hungry?, Mr. C’s, and Jimmy’s Lunch Truck.
UPDATE (4:49pm): University spokesman EJ Miranda confirmed the image we obtained was accurate: “The mobile food truck will be used on Rutgers property to offer an option to our meal plan students and it will accept RU Express and cash for non-meal plan students and staff.
“It is not intended to compete with existing local businesses. It will have an eclectic menu. It will also be used for special occasions on campus like Alumni Weekend, Convocation, etc., and to support events done by Rutgers Catering. We anticipate it will be in operation before the end of this semester,” Miranda said in an email.
But the future of the existing trucks remains uncertain, as they were notably absent from plans for a new skyscraper and plaza that would replace their current home, a university-owned parking lot managed by the Rutgers Department of Transportation Services (RUDOTS).
According to our sources, some of the trucks will likely be relocated to the area underneath the Rutgers Student Center on Morrell Street. But for nearly two decades they have been situated in a prime location: the Rutgers lot at the intersection of Hamilton Street and College Avenue.
The new, as-yet-unannounced revelation that Rutgers Dining Services, the third-largest student dining operation in the country, may be joining in on the lucrative business only adds to the uncertainty.
END OF AN ERA?
The truck owners have enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the food truck business in New Brunswick thanks to their exclusive arrangement with Rutgers, and the fact that the city banned food trucks from operating on city streets in 1992.
But in 2011, long before plans for the development were made public, RUDOTS publicly expressed displeasure with the expenses associated with hosting the trucks in their parking lot and announced their intent to develop an open public bidding process for food truck vendors.
That change would have meant the end of the road for many of the truck owners, who, according to a 2011 Star-Ledger article, “are a group of mostly Arab-American immigrants who formed a partnership over the years where they share partial ownership in each other’s trucks in a complex arrangement.
Instead, the opportunities would go to the highest bidder who agreed to comply with a new set of regulations, including selling Pepsi products and removing the trucks overnight.
“Some said they are willing to pay higher rent, move their trucks at night and sell Pepsi if they can stay in the lot. But they do not want to risk losing their spots in a public bidding process,” read the article.
The existing trucks, which at one point numbered as many as eight and were each mobile, trading spaces with one another each month in the interests of fairness. Now, only five “trucks” remain, most are immobile, and one doesn’t even have wheels.
Having been a well-known fixture at Rutgers since the 1960’s, the trucks have only grown in popularity since setting up shop in Lot 8 more than two decades ago.
Their signature menu items, a variety of “fat sandwiches” with creative names, have since spread to pizza joints in the surrounding neighborhood, and as far away as a pro football stadium in Philadelphia.
The famous sandwiches consist of a sub roll stuffed with multiple types of greasy food like hamburger patties, french fries, chicken fingers, mozzarella sticks, fried eggs, and gyro meat.
According to a New York Times article published last September, “there are now roughly 40 [fat sandwiches] sold by the trucks (all $6 to $7, most developed and named by students.)”
After sparking the current controversy over the future of the trucks, RUDOTS conducted an online survey that garnered 1,812 responses specifically about the grease trucks issue and released the results in January 2012.
When asked what types of food they wanted at the space currently occupied by the trucks, 68% of respondents said “fat sandwiches,” the most of any category. Second place was “organic/healthy,” with 40%.
PLAN TO REPLACE TRUCKS WITH HUGE PRIVATE DORM
On Rutgers President Richard McCormick’s last day in office, the University announced a plan for the New Brunswick Development Corporation (DEVCO) to build “privatized student housing” at multiple locations on the College Avenue Campus.
One of those locations is currently home to the university’s career services office and the 170 parking spaces that make up Lot 8, known locally as “the grease trucks lot.”
If financing comes into place, construction could begin as early as this fall on a sprawling sixteen-story, 800-bed student apartment building. The new building, expected to open in September 2015, would be owned by DEVCO, but operated by the University’s housing division.
At December’s city Planning Board meeting, the board gave preliminary approval to the massive structure, with no plan for re-locating the trucks, by a 7-0 vote.
When asked about the fate of the food trucks, DEVCO Vice President Sara Clarke said, “I understand that Rutgers is working on the solution for a temporary location.”
“Devco has been in discussions with the grease truck owners about other alternatives for their inclusion in the site,” read the meeting’s minutes.
Officials in the city government and university power structure are actively pushing the privatized student housing project, and remain confident that its application for $33 million in tax credits will be approved by the state’s Economic Development Authority (EDA).
The EDA’s decision, tentatively scheduled for an April 9 board meeting, could be the final nail in the coffin of the grease trucks as we know them.
TRUCKS DRAW CONSTANT ATTENTION AND CONTROVERSY
The trucks, and the traditions surrounding them have focused a lot of attention on Rutgers, the nation’s eighth-oldest institution of higher learning.
In 2004, Maxim magazine voted the “Fat Darrell,” one of the most popular sandwiches sold at the trucks, as the best sandwich in the United States.
In 2009, the Travel Channel’s “Man v. Food” visited New Brunswick, and its host Adam Richman famously fell just short of eating five “fat” sandwiches in 45 minutes, the traditional benchmark required to have one of the combinations named after one’s self.
But the attention hasn’t always been positive.
Once upon a time, several of the trucks were open 24 hours a day, but the University cracked down, eventually forcing them to close at 2am for security reasons.
In 1998, a Rutgers police lieutenant told the Star-Ledger’s Matthew Reilly that there were “physical confrontations and bottle-throwing incidents between truck owners.”
In 2011, a young man was shot near the trucks following the final Rutgersfest event, which was cancelled permanently due to ensuing violence in New Brunswick.
In 2003, Middlesex County health inspectors shut down the trucks for 27 hours, because they had failed to meet the more stringent regulations required for non-mobile restaurants. Here’s what the Star-Ledger reported:
They’re on wheels, but aside from a monthly exchange of positions – so each owner gets a turn in the good spots – they don’t move. So a couple of years ago the department required them to maintain a bathroom for employees and a sink for sanitizing utensils, just like any fixed establishment.
On Wednesday an inspector found the bathroom had a burst pipe.
“The bathroom was not only filthy, it was inoperative,” [inspector Douglas] Sheehan said.
In 2005, the trucks drew ire from the gay and lesbian community for some of the politcally incorrect sandwich names, including “Fat Dyke” and “Fat Bitch.”
The University ordered the trucks to alter their menus, but the names lived on verbally. Most truck owners simply placed duct tape over the banned names which also included “Fat Filipino,” “Fat Veggie Indian,” and “Fat Buddha.”
Many truck owners renamed the “Fat Bitch” the “Fat Beach.”
A TRADITION OF SAVING THE GREASE TRUCKS
The trucks have always been controversial despite their unquestioned popularity. In fact, a backlash erupted when they were first moved into the current home, just yards from their prior location.
Eight years later, with the trucks far from endangered, students still spoke out in support of them at a public forum seeking preliminary input on a campus master plan, as noted by the Star-Ledger’s Kelly Heyboer.
At a public hearing on the Livingston College campus in Piscataway, about 50 students, alumni and faculty attended to listen and testify about their building priorities. The suggestions included new dorms, a new Asian students’ cultural center and added theater facilities.
Several students also mentioned saving the grease trucks, the food vendors that park in a lot off College Avenue and have become a campus-life fixture. Though there are no immediate plans to move the trucks, the planning consultants said the vendors are parked on a valuable piece of New Brunswick land that may one day need to be developed.
“The grease trucks are, as far as the students are concerned, an institution. . . . That’s the simple truth of it,” Tom DeRosa, a senior history major, told the panel.
President Richard McCormick announced an ambitious vision to revitalize the College Avenue campus in 2004 that included a new academic building in place of the grease trucks parking lot.
But he steadfastly denied that the trucks would be eliminated: “The grease trucks are not in peril,” he told the Star-Ledger, emphasizing they would be relocated if and when displaced by a new building.
“We’re not messing with the grease trucks,” McCormick again assured the community in 2006 after state budget cuts made it impossible for major improvements to be made to College Avenue.
McCormick was still hopeful that something would be done to beautify the area, despite the setback.
“Our College Avenue campus, unlike the heart of many beautiful campuses in America, is a vehicular thoroughfare with buses, trucks, cars, parking meters and grease trucks, and it doesn’t look as nice as it should,” said McCormick.
McCormick, no longer in power, will watch as his successor Robert Barchi determines the fates of the College Avenue redevelopment plan and some of the world’s most famous food trucks.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate, a community organizer, and a former independent candidate for mayor of New Brunswick.