U. considers remobilizing grease trucks


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Photo by Noah Whittenburg |

The University’s grease trucks have not moved from the lot for about six years, said Samir Alkilani, who co-owns three trucks.


The University’s famed grease trucks, located in Lot 8 on the College Avenue campus, have been part of a long-standing tradition on campus.

But now some University officials are saying this tradition could change by next year.

For several business, health and safety reasons, the University is considering making the grease trucks, which have been located in that lot for 18 years, mobile again.

To do so, the University is looking to put that prime location out to bid on the market — which has never been done before, said Jack Molenaar, director of the Department of Transportation Services. The winning bidders would then be allowed to serve in that designated space on one condition: They would have to leave the area at some point during the night.

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Photo by Taylere Peterson |

But the current owners of the five grease trucks there feel this potential change is unfair because of the time and money they spent establishing their businesses in the lot.

Regardless of the University’s decision, they said they are willing to make whatever changes the University asks in order to keep serving their community.

 

THE UNIVERSITY

According to a tentative committee composed of several University officials, the trucks pose several health, safety and financial detriments that the school looks to rectify.

The committee, led by Molenaar, whose department oversees the trucks as they are stationed in a University lot, brought these concerns to light Monday at a meeting that also included several student leaders in the Public Safety Building on Commercial Avenue.

“We don’t have a problem with the grease trucks there,” Molenaar said. “We’re just trying to make sure we’re meeting all the rules and regulations.”

The first issue stems from PepsiCo, which has a contract that all food vendors on University property serve PepsiCo products, Molenaar said. The grease trucks do not.

The University also supports the trucks financially. Currently the trucks pay a monthly rent totaling $62,400 a year. But with security, electric and grease removal/cleaning costs, the University saw a $93,467 deficit last year, Molenaar said.

This does not include solid waste removal costs, which run up to about $5,600 per year, or the lot’s power washing occurs about six times a year at $1,500 per wash, said Dianne Gravatt, director of Environmental Services and Grounds, at the meeting.

There are additional costs for pest control and bathroom repair. Students in the past ripped off the grease trucks’ bathroom sink, racking up additional repair costs, Gravatt said.

Another issue the University faces with the trucks regards environmental compliance.

Sue Dickison, health safety specialist for environmental projects at the University, said the trucks are accountable for several grease drum spills and have disposed of used fryer oil down sinks and storm drains.

At the meeting, she said these spills are not often properly cleaned up, which affects the Raritan River and does not comply with the Clean Water Act.

She said she has spoken often to the vendors about this issue, and they are aware of it.

“Their practices have been less than desirable,” she said.

This led the University about two years ago to consider putting the location up for bid to outside vendors, Molenaar said.

Several outside vendors that offer different food types have approached the University, asking to place their food truck in the prime location that sees heavy faculty, staff and student traffic.

“[We’re a more] diverse school than we were 18 years ago,” he said.

 

THE TRUCKS

Owner of RU Hungry? Ayman Elnaggar owns two of the five grease trucks, one of which is the $250,000 trailer The Scarlet Shack. His trucks are open during the day shift from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Elnaggar, said he is aware of these environmental and maintenance concerns, and he works to take care of these issues personally.

“We all do the best we can. We want to stay there. That’s how we make our living,” said Elnaggar, who has been in the lot since 1996.

He also said outside establishments often dump extra trash into their dumpsters and dispose of grease into their drums, as the area — which is relatively garbage- and grease-free — is unlocked. Though Elnaggar said he and his staff take as many precautions as possible, some spills have happened, and the area is not perfect.

As for the bathroom issues, he said he has locked it so students cannot use it anymore.

“We do the best we can to solve [problems],” he said.

Samir Alkilani — part-owner of Mr. C’s, Jimmy’s Lunch Truck and Just Delicious, the three trucks that run during the 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. night shift — said before he closes each night, he makes sure the lot is clean.

“The thing is the kids, Rutgers students, they stay here hanging out in this area to four or five in the morning. I’m not going to wait until the last student goes home,” he said.

But these issues cause the University to not break even with the current rental rates, Molenaar said.

“We shouldn’t be subsidizing businesses that make a profit here if we don’t have to,” said Jay Kohl, vice president for Administration and Public Safety, at the meeting.

Alkilani and Elnaggar said they would be willing to comply with any changes the University needed them to make and pay higher rents to accommodate the extra costs to the University. A few years ago, the trucks had a lease that was renewed every three or four years, but now it is a monthly rent.

Kohl said this month-to-month set up keeps the deal with the trucks flexible, and the University wants to open this to the marketplace to see if there are ways to make this opportunity not only self-sufficient but also safer and more enjoyable for the school.

Elnaggar believes this potential change is unfair. He invested a large amount of money in 2003 for his trailer, outdoor seating and different food items such as specialty coffee, salads, Halal and vegetarian items.

He said only he and the other trucks have the experience required to serve the needs of the University community.

The trucks are known worldwide for their fat sandwiches and have received accolades not just from publications like Sports Illustrated and Maxim, but literally from around the world, Elnaggar said.

“I see that we got recognition, and it hurts me that the institution that I worked for for 14 years, they just want to get rid of me,” he said.

Elnaggar said other universities have asked him to bring his trucks there. But because of his love for the University, he said he wants to stay.

“If we have to bid, I’m going to follow the rules,” he said.

Elnaggar also believes this change is unfair because the University had already approved him bringing in the trailer and trucks. He thinks with this, he could never be reimbursed for the changes he has made to improve the area.

“Now you’re telling me I have to get rid of my trailer, which was agreed to [be here] to serve students?” he asked.

Alkilani echoed these sentiments and said about 25 families work with the five trucks. He said the loss would be devastating.

“So anybody interested who’s got money is going to take my life out?” he asked.

Alkilani thinks due to their history and dedication to the area — as well as the time and money invested — the original trucks should be given priority in how to handle this issue.

“I think before they open it to the market, they open it to us,” he said.

Alkilani said he would be willing to make any changes the University asked of him, but if he had to go to bid, he would as well.

“I have no other choice,” he said.

 

THEN, NOW AND TOMORROW

The trucks — which used to be situated up and down College Avenue in the 1980s — were moved into that lot in 1994 to solve noise and traffic issues when the City passed an ordinance banning food vendors from the streets.

They used generators for their electricity, which caused too much noise. So the University put them in Lot 8 to reduce pedestrian traffic and provided them with electrical supply to remove the generators, Molenaar said.

“When we put them there, the goal was to solve the problem,” he said.

Now, the mobile vendors, which Alkilani said have not moved in about six years, are halfway toward a permanent food court, Molenaar said.

“We’re in this hybrid state,” he said.

Since the trucks no longer move around campus — though Elnaggar said they do have that capability — Molenaar and the committee members are thinking of reinstituting that function to solve these issues.

“We think being mobile puts cost back where it should be, on mobile vendors. … The goal is for them to make a profit and [the University] meets health and safety standards,” Molenaar said.

First, in recognizing the cultural significance of Lot 8, the committee discussed allowing vendors to bid on the location to have their trucks there, potentially in a painted or fenced-in area, but for only a specified time.

For example, the trucks would have to leave the lot from 3 to 6 a.m. every day to an off-base site in order to maintain their status as “mobile” and not permanent food establishments, all while keeping pedestrian and noise traffic controlled.

Elnaggar said these requirements are an unnecessary burden on the trucks.

“Do I have to do it every day for three hours? That’s a lot of work for me and Rutgers University,” he said. “You’re taking away the focus of serving the students.”

Molenaar suggested that to make the trucks mobile, the University would remove the trucks’ electrical supply in the lot, and they would return to using generators.

Gravatt said today’s generators, which are powered by odorless natural gas, are not noisy unlike those in the past.

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.

These include: being outfitted with proper equipment to maintain and keep foods at safe temperatures; ware-washing and hand-washing sinks with hot/cold potable running water; and satisfactory inspection from the Middlesex County Health Department, among several others.

Alkilani and Elnaggar said they routinely attend MCHD food-handling courses. Their trucks are inspected every six months by the MCHD, otherwise they could not serve food.

“Without the health inspector, we cannot get the certificate from the City,” Elnaggar said.

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.

Molenaar said the University does not want to get rid of the grease trucks, but rather abide by all regulations.

Kohl said this is an important decision to make and the University plans to look for input from all areas of the community.

Molenaar said there are many University departments that need to be consulted in making this decision with the grease trucks in the upcoming months.

“It’s not just a fat sandwich,” he said.

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