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NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Three of the famous grease trucks had to be towed out of their longtime home Friday morning.
“Last night of grease trucks at Rutgers at present location,” tweeted the developer of a new building forcing the trucks out. “Opening at new locations over the weekend.”
But as of 7:30pm Sunday, none of the famous food trucks had made it out of the shop and into their new spaces on the College Avenue, Douglass, and Cook campuses.
As we reported last week, Rutgers cleared the way for the trucks to be split up and dispatched to new locations, with no more than two trucks in one place.
Before the trucks open up in the new locations, all but one of them needs to install a generator and be made driveable, which can cost several thousand dollars. They will also have to leave their spots for at least three hours every night.
The truck owners said they would be willing to pay for the expenses associated with installing an electric hookup, as well as the electricity itself, but Rutgers wouldn’t budge.
Previously, the trucks paid Rutgers for an electric hookup from the office building next door and they never had to move from their parking spaces.
Under the new agreements, Jimmy’s and Mr. C’s will be parked together on Senior Street, between the Alexander Library and Army ROTC building. Just Delicious will be located one block over in a university parking lot on George Street between Campbell and Hardenbergh Halls.
Two remaining trucks will open on the Cook/Douglass campus in the Second Ward.
Near the abandoned Cooper dining hall and the Douglass Campus Center, the university recently established a small food court complete with six tables on Nichol Avenue.
But there’s no sign of any designated space for the RU Hungry trailer to park. Rumor has it the trailer is moving to a Rutgers parking lot on Dudley Road, near Nicholas Hall.
For the next semester, each vendor will pay Rutgers $1,000 in exchange for not much more than a parking spot. When it comes to water, electricity, restrooms, and garbage removal, the trucks are on their own.
One owner said Rutgers wanted them to eventually install generators on the inside of the truck, a situation that would be “unworkable” because the noise and vibration could adversely affect workers in the truck.
The new contracts, which took effect Friday, are only good through December 31. At that point, the owners will have to go back to the bargaining table.
The university may then opt to conduct a public bidding process, or add more trucks to the mix. They could also alter the available parking spots, or the terms of the agreement.
“In the coming months, the university will determine the most effective process to provide opportunities for additional mobile food vendors who will offer a variety of food options to the campus community,” said university spokesman EJ Miranda.
THE FUTURE OF THE TRUCKS IS STILL HOTLY CONTESTED
As Rutgers went back and forth with the owners regarding the possibilities for relocation, fans of the trucks were confused and heartbroken.
First, the word was that a cluster of five trucks on Senior Street would be a part of the relocation plan, with six more vendors spread out across the other campuses.
But Rutgers inexplicably cut the available spaces for food trucks to seven, ensuring no more than two trucks would occupy any one location.
Finally, the spots proposed for Piscataway’s Busch and Livingston were abandoned when the township declared the vendors would have to move every ten minutes. It’s not clear whether the township even has jurisdiction to enforce its’ mobile food vendor ordinance on Rutgers property.
Nevertheless, Rutgers re-worked its plans keep the trucks on the New Brunswick side of the Raritan. And as a result, thousands of students stranded on the Busch and Livingston will have to take a trip to New Brunswick to visit the trucks.
In 1994, a 19-year-old Rutgers sophomore running as a Republican for a Piscataway Town Council seat made it an issue in a local election but lost 2:1 against an incumbent.
“Hurwitz said he would act as a voice of the Rutgers community and push for the township’s permission to allow truck vendors – popularly known as ‘grease trucks’ – to be placed on the university’s Piscataway campuses,” read an article about the race.
Ever since the redevelopment plans were first announced last summer, confusion has surrounded the future of the trucks, as a diverse array of opinions on what was best for Rutgers came to the fore.
From loyalists who said, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” to those who said something should have been done about the trucks’ unhealthy offerings, noise, and litter long ago, seemingly every one had an opinion.
The most amazing aspect of the entire controversy is how fiercely these opinions were felt.
One Rutgers alumni commented on our original article, saying the decision made him less likely to give money to his alma mater: “Rutgers has completely lost any sense of community and tradition in its attempt to become the most generic ‘University Park’ in the US. It’s partaking in a disgusting race between other big state-schools to see which one can become the most vanilla.”
To which another reader responded, “Oh yeah, the 20 year old tradition of filthy trucks serving unhealthy food to drunk idiots is really worth preserving… I guess I missed the part where Grease Trucks can only operate in one freaking parking lot.”
It’s the first time that the university has implemented formal policies on food trucks since 1992, when they created the “College Avenue Food Court.”
Many argued that the grease trucks’ departure is just another example of big corporation kicking out small businesses, while others alleged that the new development will be out of character with the surrounding neighborhood.
But some thought the decision to break up the greasy monopoly was a wise move for the university, and would help to diversity both the types of food offerred, and the geographic areas served by food trucks.
Still, others debated the merits of various potential spots for the trucks, and of keeping the trucks together, splitting them up or forcing them to drive around to find a different approved location every so often.
“Honestly, I’m fine with this decision. Build up College Ave campus for students with more dorms and more state-of-the-art classrooms,” wrote one NBT commenter.
“And it would be great if Rutgers promoted healthier options. It’s time to change.”
OWNERS COMPETED AND COOPERATED IN UNIQUE ARRANGEMENT
The trucks’ departure from the lot means an end to a unique arrangement that fostered both competition and cooperation amongst the vendors, who enjoyed a virtual monopoly for almost 21 years.
On one hand, the trucks may be able to reach a wider audience by spreading out geographically, but they also stand to lose some of their mass appeal, partly derived from the unique competitive yet cooperative arrangement in Lot 8.
The owners agreed that they made a mistake by not sticking together, and instead negotiating individually with Rutgers for the best new spots.
In typical fashion, as the day shift gave way to night shift on the final day in Lot 8, one owner gave several speeches to the assembled crowd before fighting in a strange standoff with another owner.
Ayman Elnaggar thanked his customers and vowed to return to serve them soon, playing up the fact that his truck’s Fat Darrell had once been ranked the best sandwich in the country by Maxim Magazine.
A few minutes later, Samir Alkalani, owner of Mr. C’s tried to force a metal flap closed on the RU Hungry truck, separating a horde of customers from Elnaggar, who was still serving sandwiches shortly after the 7pm cutoff.
Elnaggar and another man pushed back on the flap to hold the window open but not before one customer was hit in the head.
The standoff ended and Elnaggar continued to finish off the customers in line at his truck by exiting his trailer and delivering the sandwiches direct, much to the chagrin of Alkalani.
As the night shift began, with Mr. C’s and Just Delicious open for one last time, Elnaggar delivered the last few batches of sandwiches to customers near his truck, setting them down on the tables, free to the first person to grab them.
Meanwhile, a man smoking a cigarette abruptly yanked the umbrellas out from the tables in the makeshift food court, apparent payback for the earlier episode with Alkalani.
RU Hungry’s operators then began handing out snacks, candy, and gum before cleaning out the truck.
SOME TRUCKS NEEDED HELP GETTING OUT OF THEIR SPACES
Jimmy’s Lunch Truck and Just Delicious were able to leave the lot under their own power as the Rutgers deadline approached.
But other trucks needed some help to get out of their longtime parking spots.
Friday morning came, and three of the trucks, including one that is actually a six-wheeled trailer, were unable to leave without assistance.
As utility workers carefully took down power lines in the lot and construction workers readied the site, three tow trucks arrived around 10am, though only two proved necessary.
A blue and yellow pickup truck was able to tow the 33-foot-long RU Hungry trailer out first. Next, a Coppa’s tow truck pulled out Mr. C’s, considered to be one of the oldest trucks still around.
A partial owner of that truck told News 12 NJ’s John Klekamp that nothing would happen if it he tried to fire up the truck’s engine: “No battery, no nothing,” said Mohammed Garaibeh, one of the owners of Mr. C’s.
At 10:38 am, another truck, also named RU Hungry, was the last to be removed from the lot as the truck owners, police officers, and passersby stopped and looked on while a Logan’s tow truck removed the final legend, ending the 21-year experiment of semi-permanent food trucks in Lot 8.
Workers quickly erected a fence surrounding the site as pidgeons slowly descended on the spaces formerly occupied by the trucks, gobbling the remaining foodstuffs from the pavement.
J&J CO-FOUNDER AND GREASE TRUCKS CALLED SAME PLACE HOME
Long before the grease trucks made the 170-space parking lot famous, the same exact location was also noteworthy for one of its first residents.
A large home known as Gray Terrace once occupied the site of the modern-day parking lot at the corner of College Avenue and Hamilton Street.
The mansion served first as the private residence of Robert Wood Johnson, of the founders of Johnson & Johnson and namesake of Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital.
His brother and J&J co-founder James Wood Johnson lived nearby on Union Street and the two walked just one block to get to work.
A stone retaining wall surrounding some of the property has remained from the olden days. New Brunswick Development Corporation President Chris Paladino recently posted on an online message board that the wall “is not structurally sound” and that it will “will be dismantled by hand and re-built.”
Eventually, the mansion became the home of the Rutgers Sigma Kappa sorority chapter before it was demolished in the 1960’s, and paved over to provide parking for the growing university.
BOTH GREASE AND TRUCKS HAVE RICH HISTORY ON RUTGERS CAMPUS
Fueled by competition, food truck owners and operators helped carve out a niche market in a hungry Hub City.
The truck owners, known for their hard work and long hours, are mostly immigrants from Lebanon and Egypt, who speak English as a second or third language.
It wasn’t always easy, between the consistent fighting amongst the group and frequent attempts by authorities to more strictly regulate their operations.
But these men and their trucks created a culture that fostered culinary inventions like the Fat Cat and Fat Darrell, two sandwiches that furthered the unique culture surrounding the cluster of trucks.
According to NBT reader Steve Greene, though they haven’t always been called the “grease trucks” the tradition has “a lineage dating back to 1931 when mobile food carts began appearing on the streets that run through Rutgers campus.”
Mr. C’s, considered the oldest of the trucks still around today, sports an awning that says, “The Original Grease Truck Since 1960.”
In the late 1970’s, that truck furiously competed for customers with another legendary truck: Sunrise, whose owner also ran a luncheonetter of the same name on Livingston Avenue.
In what the Rutgers newspaper dubbed the “Gyro Wars,” both truck owners worked tirelessly and frequently
lowered their prices to undercut one another. Both trucks live on today under new ownership: Sunrise was bought by Jimmy Kassouf and re-branded Jimmy’s Lunch Truck. Mr. C’s is now owned primarily by Samir Alkalani.
Eventually, someone invented the Fat Cat, a sandwich complete with two burgers, french fries, lettuce, tomato, onions, cheese, and ketchup, all on a sub roll. Before its invention, the trucks’ signature product was the gyro.
The trucks moved around regularly, growing a steady following parked at locations on College Avenue near the Rutgers Student Center and Mettler Hall. Eventually some of the trucks migrated towards Scott Hall, one of the main academic buildings at Rutgers.
By the time the city took action to ban them from city streets, there were nine trucks selling Fat Cats and other fan favorites.
Of course, no discussion of the history of grease in New Brunswick is complete without a mention of Greasy Tony’s, the famous restaurant that proudly advertised “No Charge for Extra Grease”
The restaurant was located on Easton Avenue for 30 years, before a Rutgers student housing project forced them out.
The signature meal at that store was “the Trashcan” — a cheesesteak with fried onions, peppers, tomatoes, mushrooms, and pickles.
Tony originally ran four Greasy Tony’s restaurants in New Jersey, but after Rutgers forced him out of the Easton Avenue location (also to build a dorm), he moved out to Arizona, where he ran several successful restaurants of the same name.
Tony passed away in 2008 at the age of 78, but his stores live on in Tempe and Tucson. He is still remembered fondly by the Rutgers community, who flocked to his Tempe store in droves when the Rutgers football team played in the Insight.com Bowl in 2005.
THE BIRTH OF THE “COLLEGE AVENUE FOOD COURT”
A critical turning point came in 1992, when the City Council voted to ban trucks from city streets.
Attorney George Gussis and Rutgers administrator Robert Spear worked out a deal to move the trucks into the corner of a nearby parking lot, thus absolving the city government of responsibility.
Though food vendor laws are still on the books, the 1992 ordinance deleted the list of acceptable locations for mobile food vendors to operate.
In that ordinance the council declared previous efforts to regulate the trucks on the streets proved insufficient.
“In 1985 the City attempted to alleviate the problems [traffic congestion, pedestrian safety, and litter] by creating a location for mobile food vendors curbside at certain designated locations on College Avenue
In the new arrangement worked out between Rutgers and the city, the university installed electric hookups for the vehicles, enabling them to ditch their noisy and dangerous generators.
And by letting the trucks stay open 24 hours a day, the trucks no longer had to be mobile, saving the businesses money on gas and other associated expenses.
“The establishment by Rutgers University of the College Avenue Food Court will enable the City to improve the flow of vehicular and pedestrian traffic,” read the 1992 law.
When a Hamilton Street resident asked the council to alleviate the noise and garbage created by the trucks in 1998, City Council President Joe Egan told the man “the council had no authority over that property and that he should talk to Rutgers officials about it,” according to a New York Times article.
After learning the man had already spoken to Rutgers police and the mayor’s office, Egan asked Business Administrator Thomas Loughlin to meet with Rutgers officials to try to resolve the problem.
Eventually, Rutgers forced the trucks to close every night at 2am, but permitted them to stay parked in the lot.
“When they stayed open later, most of the people patronizing these establishments were intoxicated,” Lt. Laura Kull of the Rutgers Police Department told the Star-Ledger’s Matthew Reilly.
Kull added that there were also “physical confrontations and bottle-throwing incidents between truck owners.”
But, ultimately, Rutgers still allowed the trucks to stay and was very supportive of his semi-permanent trailer. A few years later, with the school’s blessing, Elnaggar added seating and tables complete with umbrellas near the truck, further establishing the permanence of the trucks.
INNOVATIVE MENU ITEMS CREATED AND FORTUNES MADE
The legend behind the trucks grew bigger in 1997, when a man low on spending money asked one vendor to make a special sandwich that packed chicken fingers, mozzarella sticks, and french fries into an affordable and portable meal.
“Separately, they would have cost me, like, $12.75, and I was on a college budget,” Butler told the Associated Press in 2004.
“So, I’m standing there eating it, and all of a sudden the guy standing behind me says, ‘That thing that guy’s eating looks pretty good, can you make me one of those?’ And, it was like a movie scene, the next 10 people order the same thing. So, I’m like, ‘Whoa!’ like I think I might be onto something. And the guy is like, ‘Hey, man, this is cool,'” he said.
That sandwich, dubbed the “Fat Darrell,” inspired a tradition of culinary innovations at the trucks, each one created by the customers themselves.
According to FatDarrell.com, the success of the sandwich sparked others to follow suit, and the owners soon realized they would have to come up with with standards to name a sandwich, “before things got completely out of hand.”
“They originally decided to require students to eat 3 fat sandwiches in less than an hour before they would be allowed to name one of their own,” says the website. “However, after so many hungry college students were able to do so easily, they increased the requirements to the current challenge of 5 fat sandwiches in 45 minutes or less!”
Today, the trucks’ signature menu items are a variety of “fat sandwiches” with strange names like Fat Bitch, Fat Va Va Boom, Fat Blunt, Fat Elvis, and the Fat Nini 69. The names often pay homage to their inventors or various on-campus organizations, such as the Fat Phi Delta and the Fat ZBT.\
The delicious sandwiches have spread to Princeton’s Hoagie Haven, as well as restaurants at other large universities in State College, PA and Morgantown, WV.
The namesake of the Fat Darrell is now a certified personal trainer, who describes his invention as “a chicken parm on steroids,” makes additional income from licensing the sandwich he created.
Darrell Butler says he paid $4.50 for the first Fat Darrell. 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.)”
Butler’s website declares that, “The Fat Darrell sandwich is the federally registered property of Fat Darrell’s LLC™ a subdivision of MajesticGroove Entertainment™.”
And his limited liability corporation profits from licensing the sandwich to West Virginia University, and to Aramark, the largest food service business in the world. Aramark sells the sandwich at Lincoln Financial Field, home of the Philadelphia Eagles.
As far as the trucks uncertain future, Butler told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “I love Rutgers, but I don’t think they give the full respect to the trucks.”
Abdul Eid, the man who made the first Fat Darrell while working in the RU Hungry truck, made good money, and eventually opened his own store on Easton Avenue: RU Grill & Pizza.
Advantages of owning a storefront and a truck simultaneously include getting ingredients and services like grease removal taken care of in bulk. Plus, restaurants are not required to close at any specific time, while the trucks have been required to close at 2am for at least the past 15 years.
Maybe that’s why the men behind at least three Easton Avenue restaurants (Jimmy’s, Giovanelli’s, and Sahara) made much of their startup capital running trucks in Lot 8 during the booming 1990’s.
RUTGERS TRADITION GOES MAINSTREAM
In the 2000’s, the beloved trucks and the traditions surrounding them drew attention to Rutgers, the nation’s eighth-oldest institution of higher learning, and their home city of New Brunswick.
By 2002, students already saw the trucks’ Lot 8 location as sacred. After planning consultants said the land where the trucks were parked may one day need to be developed, several students proposed saving a spot for the grease trucks at the public hearing.
“The grease trucks are, as far as the students are concerned, an institution… That’s the simple truth of it,” student Tom DeRosa was quoted in the Star-Ledger.
A flurry of media attention came in 2004 when the Fat Darrell was recognized as the nation’s best sandwich in Maxim Magazine.
The Darrell subsequently made it on Esquire’s list of “60 Things Worth Shortening Your Life For.” And the trucks were a regular desination for film crews with both the Travel Channel and the Food Network.
Travel Channel’s “Man v. Food” famously visited the trucks in 2009, when host Adam Richman fell just short of eating five “fat” sandwiches in 45 minutes.
But the media attention hasn’t always been positive.
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 placed duct tape over the banned names which also included “Fat Filipino,” “Fat Veggie Indian,” and “Fat Buddha.”
Many truck owners simply renamed the “Fat Bitch” the “Fat Beach.”
Part of the trucks’ new contracts mentions that the trucks “shall not depict rude or vulgar words or images anywhere on its vehicle, nor depict words or phrases which are inappropriate for the Rutgers community.”
Only time will tell how fiercely Rutgers will police names like “Fat Skeetstain,” “Fat Fellatio,” and “Fat Phuck.”
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
Jack Molenaar was hired to take over Rutgers Department of Parking and Transportation in 2005 , around the same time University President Richard McCormick announced his vision to dramatically re-design the university’s historic College Avenue campus.
The first-term Fanwood Councilman and former Somerset County Planner might not have known it just in 2005, but he would end up being Rutgers’ point person for the removal of the grease trucks from Lot 8.
Even though Dining Services typically deals with food vendors on campus, because the trucks were parked on Rutgers property, they were his problem.
It was then that some began to fear the trucks might be forced out of their longtime spots.
Each of five finalists in a highly-publicized competition to re-design the campus were given $50,000 to develop a vision for the historic campus, but budget cuts by Gov. Jon Corzine, as well as an expensive expansion of the school’s football stadium, prevented any major changes from being implemented.
Eventually, a new DEVCO skyscraper, the tallest in the city, was built a block away from the trucks, forcing out small businesses and renters to build apartments, condos, a restaurant, a 676-space parking garage, and a new Rutgers bookstore.
It wasn’t until 2011 that the university began a public relations blitz against the trucks, when Molenaar came out front and center, emphasizing the costs the university incurs as a result of their presence and the downsides of their lack of mobility.
Earlier that year, a young man had been shot near the trucks, several hours after Rutgersfest, an annual free concert sponsored by the university for more than thirty years. McCormick cancelled the festival permanently due to the ensuing violence in New Brunswick.
Few knew that the trucks, too, might soon be cancelled.
“This is a huge cultural issue,” Molenaar told NJ.com that November. “We want to make this as transparent as possible so no one thinks big, bad Rutgers is trying to get rid of the grease trucks — because we’re not.”
Molenaar credited Pepsi for first turning him on to the idea that the grease trucks needed some changes, according to the Star-Ledger:
No one questioned the [grease trucks] arrangement until last year, when representatives from PepsiCo noticed the grease trucks were selling Coke and other non-Pepsi products, Rutgers officials said.
Under a long-standing contract, only Pepsi-brand soft drinks are supposed to be sold at Rutgers.
When campus officials began looking into the grease truck contracts to resolve the Pepsi issue, they began to notice other problems, said Molenaar, the Rutgers official who oversees the lot.
There were, for example, no rules for allowing new trucks into the lot, including a Korean food truck, a health food vendor and a roasted-corn truck that had requested spaces.
Rutgers was also losing money on the deal.
Though the university collected $62,400 in rent from the five trucks last year, Rutgers had to come up with another $93,467 to provide security, electricity and grease collection, Molenaar said.
“As a public university, we shouldn’t be subsidizing (the trucks),” Molenaar said. “We want to break even.”
Rutgers also wants to put the spots up for public bid to eliminate any appearance that the public university is giving special treatment to the privately owned businesses.
Student preferences for “fat sandwiches” or other types of food could be considered when awarding the contracts, Molenaar said.
Indeed, the trucks will have to abide by new rules in order to remain on campus, but the process for doling out the new locations was far from open or public and did not include any vendors aside from the existing grease truck owners.
Against all odds, the grease trucks have continued to survive, and most of the men have worked out deals with Rutgers that still preserves their near monopoly, but poses new challenges to their business.
THE END OF AN ERA
Rutgers conducted an online survey that garnered 1,812 responses specifically about the grease trucks issue, releasing 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%.
Most of the owners have mixed feelings about leaving Lot 8. Naturally, none of the entrepreneurs concede that their new spot is the best at the bargaining table.
But they still can’t agree about how to break up their existing co-operative now that the game has changed, and city resident Ihab Salib says he is owed money for his share now that he won’t have a stake in the new arrangement.
Meanwhile, the new building at 40 College Avenue will include “a Great Lawn-type public area with a huge screen so people can gather to watch movies, sports, and other events” and “a Boardwalk-like area with food concession stands,” Paladino told the Philadelphia Inquirer.
“I’ve committed at this site there will be Fat Sandwiches,” Paladino said.
Paladino told New Brunswick Today that he “fully anticipates” some of the truck owners will set up shop at the old location when the new buildings open in 2015.
And still, there is hope for Piscataway to get in on the action as well. Rumor has it that Soupervan, a healthy truck that gives a portion of its profits to Rutgers Against Hunger, is in talks to return to the campus this fall.
Another truck, one created by Rutgers Dining Services division, is also expected to return. For several months this year, it traveled to different on-campus locations.
It’s also possible that the City Council might revisit its ordinance on trucks, perhaps opening more opportunities, given the major shakeup.
Editor’s Note: Photos in this article are courtesy of Instagram user @melihort, Christopher John Sztybel, Charlie Kratovil, Johnson & Johnson, the Travel Channel, and Rutgers Student Life.
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.