HCC awarded grant for mobile food lab
When is a food truck not a food truck? When it's a mobile culinary arts laboratory.
Holyoke Community College has been awarded a $147,000 Skills Capital Grant to purchase a truck for its culinary arts program that will be used as a mobile kitchen for community outreach and education.
"It's not our intention to sell food out of the truck as a means to generate revenue," said HCC professor Warren Leigh, co-chair of the culinary arts program. "We're not going to set up on the corner and sell tacos and hot dogs. We are absolutely going to cook in it, but the main purpose is to engage in community service. At the same time, our students will learn about food truck operations and how to work in that smaller space."
The funds, from Governor Baker's Workforce Skills Cabinet, are part of a new $3.3 million package of grants to 20 educational organizations in Massachusetts for updating equipment and expanding student enrollment in career education programs.
According to the award letter, HCC will use the $147,000 to purchase and outfit a "mobile food lab to provide students access to new hands-on/experiential learning."
The mobile kitchen will be used to support both credit and noncredit culinary arts programs and incorporate other areas of study including nutrition, health, business and entrepreneurship. HCC's grant application notes that residents of Holyoke face a high level of food insecurity and downtown Holyoke has been identified as a "food desert."
"HCC will deploy the truck to bring food to neighborhoods of downtown Holyoke," it says. In addition, HCC plans to connect this project to its downtown Freight Farms initiative with a focus on basic nutrition, local produce and healthy eating.
Leigh envisions using the mobile food lab to engage community partners such as the Holyoke Boys & Girls Club and area food pantries. Students will meet with representatives from area organizations to create menus based on ingredients of their choice or what might be seasonally available.
"We'll be there with our kitchen on wheels and help them understand that they can take this product XYZ and make it into something interesting, cooked in a fashion they would like," said Leigh.
Once the truck arrives – sometime later this year – food truck operations will be worked into the current culinary arts curriculum in both credit and non-credit courses such as event planning and line-cook training. Students will have to learn to cook in a more confined area than the generous workstations provided in the spacious kitchens at the HCC MGM Culinary Arts Institute and figure out logistics, such as how to dispose of dirty "grey" water, replenish the kitchen with fresh water, and maintain a stable power source.
"You have to have a production plan, just like you do in a restaurant, but now it's even more important because you're going into a vehicle and driving away from your home base," said Leigh. "It's like catering off site. You have to bring everything you need."
According to statistics, the growth of food trucks outpaced restaurant growth 5.5 percent to 4.3 percent in 2021, spurred in part by the COVID-19 pandemic. IBIS World, a research journal, said the industry was already experiencing rapid growth in the five years before.
"What's really cool about food trucks is that it allows you to enter the industry much more inexpensively," said Leigh. "If you're opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant from scratch, the vent hood alone can cost $20,000 to $50,000, so it's a much lower bar getting started. It's great way to put in a minimal investment and test out your concept without a lot of risk."
He cites the example of HCC culinary arts alum Nicole Ortiz, who wrote a letter in support of the grant and started her own culinary career with her Crave food truck business. Ortiz now also runs Crave restaurant on High Street in Holyoke.
"Nicole started with that small trailer that she bought with a grant from EforAll (Holyoke SPARK's Entrepreneurship for All initiative)," said Leigh. "She got going and now she's in a brick and mortar site."
Leigh said the HCC mobile food lab will have an awning like a food truck and a window to pass out food and will also be equipped with cameras in the cooking area and a flat-screen TV on the outside so people can see what's going on inside.
"Other organizations, their idea of engaging with the community is pop-up tents and Bunsen burners," said Leigh. "We're going to show up, and it's going to look like a professional operation. It will be a professional operation."
PHOTOS: (Thumbnail) Chef Warren Leigh slices a pan-seared duck breast during a class at the HCC MGM Culinary Arts Institute. (Above) HCC culinary arts alum Nicole Ortiz got her start in businesss with a mobile food trailer, which provides a much lower cost of entry into the food-service industry than opening a brick and mortar establishment. Now, she has both.