NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—As the grease trucks begin their final week in the parking lot they made famous, it appears that Rutgers officials have pitted the owners of the five trucks against one another.
Thursday will be their last day at the current location where they have been parked for 21 years.
A draft version of Rutgers “mobile food vendor application” had identified locations for eleven vendors total, including a cluster of five trucks on a dead-end block of Senior Street, a half-mile from the existing location.
But the new plan would scatter the food vendors sparingly around the campus for the first time, with no more than two trucks in any location. That major departure from precedent could take away from what makes the trucks such an attraction.
Documents obtained by New Brunswick Today reveal that the university now intends to limit the number of vendors allowed on the entire campus to just seven, with only two spots on the College Avenue campus.
Previously, as many as nine food trucks gathered in that same parking lot, forced there after Mayor James Cahill signed a law banning the trucks from city streets in 1992.
Now, owners have been scrambling to work out deals with Rutgers behind closed doors for the most coveted spaces to park on campus. And at least one operator is deeply frustrated by an apparent lack of procedure and communication on the part of the state university.
The current location was ideal for the trucks: directly adjacent to fraternity row and the main academic quad at Rutgers, within close proximity of the city train station, and immediately next to the most popular bus stop on campus. And, of course, plenty of parking available on nights and weekends.
The owners received just over one month’s notice that the university wanted them out of Lot 8 to build an 800-bed student apartment building in conjunction with a private developer.
But some fear that these plans miss the point of what made the trucks so popular. With no location hosting more than two trucks, the legendary vehicles may not have the same “destination” feel that they did clustered in Lot 8.
RUTGERS IN A RUSH TO GET RID OF THE TRUCKS THIS MONTH
George Gussis, the attorney representing the owners and operators, said his clients had previously been told they would recieve at least three to four months notice before being asked to leave their longtime spaces.
But on July 12, Rutgers officially told the owners they had to leave by August 15.
After a New Brunswick Today article made public the fast-approaching deadline, the Rutgers and New Brunswick community reacted overwhelmingly. That article has been read nearly 150,000 times so far.
The trucks are being forced out of some of the city’s primest real estate to make way for a new sixteen-story privatized apartment building for Rutgers students.
“They’re trying to get rid of the grease trucks,” Gussis said, accusing the developer and Rutgers of forcing the trucks out before the end of summer, when students return to campus.
He blamed “the Big 10 mentality” for Rutgers’ desire to eliminate the trucks and said New Brunswick Development Corporation (DEVCO) had never been kind to small businesses.
Gussis said he would be surprised if the construction schedule was truly what was forcing the trucks out, considering financing for the project wasn’t finalized until June 27.
According to the Daily Targum, “DEVCO needs the vendors out of Lot 8” so that the developer can begin realignment of crosswalks and curb cuts, and rebuilding the grease trucks bus stop on the other side of Hamilton Street before the fall semester begins.
After raising issues about the supposed sweetheart deals that the trucks had in 2011, university officials said the best solution would be a public bidding process that would end their longstanding monopoly.
But, more than thirteen months later, the university has not announced any details of their long-awaited “mobile food vendor” application process. Instead, over the past several weeks, the school quietly cut individual deals for the best new locations with some of the owners behind closed doors.
This week, the university sent proposed agreements for the upcoming year directly to some of the vendors, asking for the contracts to be signed and returned by today.
SECRETIVE APPLICATION PROCESS UNKNOWN TO PUBLIC
On President Richard McCormick’s last day in office, Rutgers officials first announced the development plans that put the trucks’ future in jeopardy.
Later that week, Director of Transportation Services Jack Molenaar confirmed that the school would still move forward with an open public bidding process for mobile food vendors.
Obviously, that is no longer the case, at least not for the upcoming school year.
Yesterday, university spokeman EJ Miranda would only say that the school is “still in discussions with the operators to finalize their locations,” and did not answer questions related to the process for assigning the spots.
According to a copy of the contract, vendors will pay $1,000 per semester and their trucks have to abide by new rules requiring they supply their own electricity, dispose of their own garbage off-campus, and leave the spots from 3am to 6am every morning.
The university refused to supply alternative on-campus parking spaces during the downtime.
“The biggest thing they’re upset about is not having electricity,” Gussis told New Brunswick Today, adding that it will make it difficult for operators to offer credit or debit card purchases. All but one of the trucks currently pays Rutgers for an electric hookup.
“If they had the electricity, they wouldn’t need the generators, but they could still be mobile,” added Gussis.
Several of the vendors independently scheduled meetings with Rutgers over the past few weeks, where they worked out agreements to secure the best potential food truck locations available.
“Assignment of spaces was based on requests from [individual truck owners],” wrote Tony Calcado, the head of Rutgers Facilities Dept. “Those that have spoken to me have been given priority.”
Rutgers lawyer Robert Roesener wrote that the university had already reached “agreements in principle” with four individuals for certain locations. That number could have changed over the course of this week.
WHERE TO FIND YOUR FAVORITE TRUCK
Ayman Elnaggar, Samir Alkilani, Mohamed Gharaibeh, and Jimmy Kassouf were identified in the documents as the first owners to work out deals for food trucks with the university on a “first-come, first-serve” basis.
“Ayman met with Facilities on his own. The other three came together… We never heard from the ‘Just Delicious’ guys. They should reach out directly and quickly,” one communication from Rutgers concluded.
The owners of Jimmy’s Lunch Truck and Mr. C’s secured spaces next to the Army ROTC building, four blocks further down College Avenue.
Samir Alkalani, the operator of Mr. C’s, will also be given space to operate on Dudley Road on Cook campus.
The only remaining space in New Brunswick is located near the former Cooper Dining Hall on Nichol Avenue.
At least one of the spaces is expected to be reserved for the Knight Wagon, a new truck operated by the university’s Dining Services division that first became operational this year.
Elnaggar’s RU Hungry?, the largest of the trucks and the only one without wheels, agreed to relocate to the Livingston campus in Piscataway.
There, Elnaggar will enjoy an exclusive arrangement, and be permitted an exception to a rule limiting truck length.
“Trailers are NOT permissible. RUHungry’s trailer is grand-fathered,” read another document from Rutgers. “Mobile trucks must be self contained, including waste water, grease storage and generator and up to 26 feet.”
RU Hungry is 33-feet long and is the only one of the bunch that already has an attached generator.
THE FUTURE OF LOT 8
Meanwhile, the developer that is forcing the trucks out insists that fans of fat sandwiches will still be able to purchase them, after construction is completed, from a stadium-style concessions stand in a new plaza on the site.
“We are going to have a stadium like concession option that will work well for several vendors but also include restrooms, etc.,” said DEVCO President Chris Paladino.
The Targum article referred to the concessions stands as “boardwalk-style.”
According to the documents obtained by NBT, representations were made to the vendors that there will be six kiosks on the same block where the trucks reside, and that former Lot 8 vendors would be given first dibs and rents similar to what they pay now.
A huge outdoor screen is also planned for the privately-owned public plaza, which Paladino says was based partly on New York City’s Bryant Park. Construction is expected to take three years.
“It’s improvements, you can not be against it,” said Samir Alkalani, operator of Mr. C’s. But he admitted it will be sad to see the trucks leave their longtime home in Lot 8.
“It’s like a part of me is being taken away,” he said Wednesday night.
But Alkalani is one of the lucky ones who may benefit from changes to the old system. He has an agreement in principle to open a second truck on the other side of town, tentatively set to be the only vendor on the Cook Campus.
Plus, he would be one of only two vendors allowed to remain on the College Avenue campus, located in the epicenter of the state university and the only campus that receives decent foot traffic year-round.
TRUCK OWNERS BATTLE AND COOPERATE
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.”
The owners have been notorious for squabbling with one another, even before they ended up competing for customers in the same Rutgers parking lot.
But that doesn’t mean they don’t work together sometimes.
In the early days at Lot 8, the trucks would fire up their engines just once a month and drive only a few feet, in order to rotate parking spaces so everyone had their turn in the best spots.
Gussis said the growing number of restaurants in close proximity to the Easton Avenue bars, including many that serve similar cuisine, has hurt the trucks’ bottom line over the last decade and forced them to cooperate more.
In recent years, they have made financial arrangements to rotate which trucks are open when and share profits through a co-op agreement. But they will never agree on who was the first to start the fat sandwich tradition.
From a February 2011 article by the Star-Ledger’s Peter Genovese:
The Rutgers “grease trucks” have elicited endless adoration and heightened cholesterol counts since the late ’60s or mid-’80s, depending upon which truck owner you listen to.
“We are the original truck,” says Jimmy Kassouf of Jimmy’s Lunch Truck, formerly known as Sunrise. “I’m the one that sold the first Fat Cat sandwich.”
“We are the first and original grease truck,” counters Samir Alkilani of Mr. C’s.
There is no arguing this: The trucks, in a parking lot at the corner of Hamilton Street and College Avenue in New Brunswick, are not only the most beloved Rutgers campus institution, but possibly Jersey’s most iconic food stop.
Ihab Salib, the only man in the co-op who actually lives in New Brunswick, has been in the grease truck business for eight years now, but says he is getting a raw deal from Rutgers.
Salib says it was some of the other owners that convinced Rutgers to cut down the number of spaces available at the Senior Street location, in an effort to keep his “Just Delicious” vehicle out of the good spots.
Originally, the university wanted to allow five different vendors there. After striking deals with two trucks, they decided not to allow anyone else.
He said that some of the other co-op members have been trying to buy out his 5% share for years, and he stands to lose big if the co-op comes to an end without fair compensation for his investment.
Because truck owner Asam Habib was the last to make it to the bargaining table, Just Delicious is left with the least desirable location: next to another vendor outside the Allison Road Classroom building on Busch campus.
Salib immigrated from Egypt fifteen years ago and has operated Just Delicious for eight years. He said it was “unprofessional” for Rutgers officials to meet with most of the other co-op members and cut deals before contacting him or his attorney.
The city resident says he feels he has “lost everything” and cannot survive in the Piscataway location the university is offering, where he predicts there will be little to no business for almost five months out of the year.
Salib blames the other owners for going behind his back and cutting “side deals” with the school. Still, he says he is very disappointed to find out that Rutgers has been playing along.
“Rutgers is supposed to be bigger than that. If they can’t handle this, how can they handle the big stuff?”
“They can make bidding. They can make lottery,” he said, suggesting two ways to fairly dole out spaces to those interested in operating food trucks on campus.
If the decision were the result of a fair process, Salib said he would even be willing to leave New Brunswick to participate, no matter how difficult of a job it was.
“Put me in Newark, I don’t care. But it’s got to to be fair. Put me in Camden, I will accept it.”
WHAT A PUBLIC PROCESS WOULD HAVE LOOKED LIKE
A 2011 article written by former Daily Targum editor Mary Diduch outlined how a bidding process might impact the trucks, long before plans for a new building on the site of Lot 8 became public:
When they put this designated location out to bid, the University would then outline certain requirements bidders must abide by in the RFP, or a request for proposal.
Though the University is not subject to state regulations regarding the RFP process, they do have various University, health and safety rules that must be followed, said Natalie Calleja, executive director of University Procurement Services. But each RFP can stipulate certain restrictions that apply to the situation.
For example, the University in this case could specify that bidders must offer a certain type of food at a moderate price range, she said.
University Sanitarian John Nasan said other requirements the RFP will consider are mobile food unit health and safety standards…
[Transportation Director Jack] Molenaar said he also intends to seek student input on what students want to see in Lot 8 and what to include in the RFP, whether it be through online polling, forums or social networking sites.
Calleja said the grease truck situation is unique and she is unsure how the process will ultimately unfold, as Monday’s meeting was preliminary. The University may choose another route altogether.
If the school does choose to go through with an RFP, Molenaar would convene a formal committee to draft the stipulations of the RFP and evaluation criteria for selecting the vendors, which typically involves a holistic set of standards, she said.
“Cost wouldn’t be the only factor in any of that. It’s usually one of many factors,” she said.
But when selecting the winning bidders, the University cannot favor the grease trucks currently there, Calleja said.
The key sentence: “The University may choose another route altogether.”
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.