Food truck project lets students make bottom-line decisions

The concept teaches entrepreneurial Trojans a few tasty lessons on licensing, food handling and preparation

April 25, 2018 Julie Tilsner

Students Sean Lo, Will Berman and Justin Bishop learned the hard way about the old adage “Location! Location! Location!”

Bad enough their food truck was parked in a relatively out-of-the-way corner of Trousdale Parkway where student traffic was light. But now a large delivery truck for Town and Gown was parked just down the way, blocking the view of any hungry students who might be leaving Bridge Hall.

“The hardest thing so far has just been getting people to notice us,” Bishop said.

But in terms of a learning experience, the day’s been a good one, he added. His teammates seemed to agree.

Food trucks serve up valuable lessons

The food trucks — four over two days — were a project in “Gaming the System,” a USC Marshall School of Business class taught by Elissa Grossman. The associate professor of clinical entrepreneurship and expert in games-as-teaching-tools said she designed the class to immerse students in real-world decision-making challenges, as supplemented by hands-on learning experiences, including readings and discussions.

I wanted to develop projects that might reimagine or reinvent the traditional classroom — projects that couldn’t be done online.

Elissa Grossman

“I wanted to develop projects that might reimagine or reinvent the traditional classroom — projects that couldn’t be done online,” she said. “I also wanted something that would feel very real so students could experience some of the ups and downs of implementing a business.”

Food trucks fit both of those criteria.

The students first competed on concept — what kind of food truck would they run? They were told, in advance, that the best concept, as evaluated by an outside team of experts, would be given the opportunity to launch that truck on campus.

After the presentations were completed and a winner was announced, however, the students were surprised with the news that everyone would be launching.

The class, a mix of students from USC Marshall and the USC Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy, as well as others, had no option but to just go for it.

Students would partner with a food truck company called Roaming Hunger to ensure that all licensing, food handling and preparation was handled safely and professionally. But everything else would be executed by the students.

All profits from the trucks will go to Swipe Out Hunger, a campus organization that collects unused Dining Dollar swipes and donates them to students who are food insecure.

With a $1,000 budget, each team had to design and cost-out a menu, order ingredients, “brand” their trucks and devise a marketing strategy. They then had to bid for locations and days, with the first-place team granted first choice.

“We didn’t win the bid, obviously,” Bishop said with a shrug. But his team’s truck concept, sweet and savory crepes, was inviting. Now if they could only draw more of a crowd.

Because their ham, cheese and egg crepe was pretty tasty.

Awful Falafel rhymes, but does it draw customers?

Not the best name for a food truck, maybe?

“But there’s only two words that rhyme with falafel,” Craig Messenger said. “Lawful and awful. We decided to go with awful. As in, our falafel is awfully good …”

Name aside, they were doing brisk business, parked as they were on McCarthy Quad. In fact, they sold out of product before the end of the day.

Le Creperie, on the other hand, didn’t sell out. But because its price points were higher, it made almost the same amount of money. Grossman smiled and said, “That will be something we discuss in class.”

Tackling trade-offs

On a recent Wednesday, the competitive differences were even starker.

Ball of the World, the truck on Trousdale, focused on food in the shape of a ball — think fried Italian rice balls, meatballs in buffalo sauce, Japanese rice balls and so on.

The Buck Truck, parked on McCarthy Quad and featuring an array of international rice bowls, was smartly branded and enjoyed a long line of hungry Trojans. Of course, it also enjoyed the foot traffic drawn by the weekly organic farmer’s market.

But there were trade-offs here as well, Grossman noted.

“There’s a fee required to set up at that location, and all sellers are required to remit a fixed percentage of their daily sales back to the university. That total was subtracted from the Buck Truck’s final sales figures for competitive reasons.

“The Farmer’s Market graciously waived the actual payment requirement as a show of support for the exercise,” Grossman said. “We could never have run this exercise without their support and the support of many, many others around campus.”

In the end, even with the fees deducted from their overall sales, The Buck Truck performed the best. But no matter how they did, the class was unanimous in their praise for the hands-on nature of project.

“This is the best class I’ve ever taken,” Messenger said. “It’s real-life, practical learning.

“Everything is applied. We do everything firsthand first, then go back and learn the theory behind it, which not only helps it stick, but immediately shows you how valuable it is.”

Lo agreed.

“She [Grossman] didn’t give us a lot of direction, which meant we were responsible for all of the intricacies of making something happen.”