Food trucks are going to school, and the Galloping Griz is among the latest to enroll.

The University of Montana’s mobile kitchen—which debuted last spring with a $167,000 price tag—provides late-night dishes, namely Mexican-style street food, to the university’s flagship campus in Missoula. It also serves breakfast and lunch offerings to a satellite campus located just five miles away.

Mark LoParco, director of university dining services, discusses the decision to invest in a food truck and the opportunities a mobile eatery brings.

Why did you decide on launching a food truck?

There were three main factors. One, we had a snack bar at our satellite campus and it needed work to the tune of $250,000; we didn’t see the ROI there. Second, our guest satisfaction surveys consistently noted a lack of late-night service options at the main campus. Third, we only had two kitchens between the two campuses. If anything happened to one, we’d be in trouble. These factors created the perfect storm to investigate a food truck as our solution.

How did you explore the viability of running a food truck?

Among self-operated university foodservice directors, we’re generally good about sharing information, stealing ideas, and adding value, so I reached out to colleagues at Michigan State University and the University of San Diego, which both have food trucks.

I asked about logistics and picked their brains about what worked or didn’t work. They both talked about throughput and making transactions fast. There was also a lot of talk about equipment versatility—having a grill, a deep fryer, steam table, and ovens to allow for a broad spectrum of production. And one gave us the wise idea to have the equipment built for our truck, rather than buying the truck and trying to fit after-market equipment into it.

Did you have any reservations about making this investment?

Not at all. We saw the success others were having, but, above all, we had three compelling business reasons. The truck is meeting so many needs in a cost-effective way. Plus, we’re finding other unexpected uses for it. We’ve already had the truck at on-campus special events, such as graduation, athletics, and cultural events. We’ve even gotten requests from off-campus entities, but we tread lightly there because we don’t want to infringe on our local businesses.

Is there anything you wish you had done differently?

It would have been wise to have some things done at the factory, such as the installation of a sound system, more electrical outlets, and undercarriage lighting. Plus, we should’ve gone with digital menus.

Emerging Concepts, Story, Galloping Griz