When Samantha Staskowski got into the food truck business after graduating from Schenectady County Community College in 2013, she didn’t know what she didn’t know.
Staskowski, of Amsterdam, who studied culinary and hotel and restaurant management, knew she wanted her own business. One day she was at a 5K in Saratoga Springs and saw a food truck that was “killing it.” With money saved from bartending through school, Staskowski went on Craigslist that night and purchased a food truck she still runs her business out of.
“I always wanted to own my own business, I wanted to have a restaurant and I figured this was the quickest way to get there,” Staskowsi said Friday.
Staskowski – who has been running her food truck, Sammy’s Country Wagon, ever since – said when she started she didn’t know the extent of the permitting and regulatory hoops she’d have to navigate.
“Going into it cost me more money than it should because I made mistakes,” she said. "People think you just show up and make money cooking food for people; there's a lot more stuff to it behind the scenes; showing up and cooking is the easiest part of the job."
SUNY Schenectady now plans to give its students both a chance to get a leg up in the food truck business and an opportunity to learn the ins and outs of the business before taking the dive into their own truck.
This fall, the college will not only roll out a new mobile food service program, but also introduce a new, fully-equipped food truck that will serve as a mobile classroom and base for the school’s culinary students to serve up fare across the region.
“This is an industry that’s thriving, it’s viable, it’s growing,” said Dave Brough, dean of the School of Hotel, Culinary Arts and Tourism. He cited a handful of studies that project the food truck industry will continue to grow.
Staskowski said that while the business keeps her going at all hours, she enjoys traveling the state cooking and serving customers. Other recent graduates have also joined the industry with food trucks of their own.
The certificate program, which already has a handful of students lined up to start next month, includes three classes. The first class introduces students to the basics of food truck design, construction and regulation. It will also help students understand what kind of permits are required to operate a food truck and how to develop one that meets their specific culinary needs. In the second class, students will obtain more experience cooking and serving customers in the food truck. In the third class, students will have a chance to develop a business plan, create a menu and run the food truck as if it is their own operation.
“We built it from scratch,” SUNY Schenectady President Steady Moono said of the food truck, noting it cost about $300,000 in all. “We wanted to make sure it had all the right components… the food truck is a mobile lab.”
The truck was supported with funding from both the SUNY Schenectady Foundation and alumni donations.
The truck is outfitted with a wide variety of kitchen equipment, enabling a wide range of menu options and food styles: four deep fryers, a six-burner range, two pizza ovens, a convection oven, a grill top, a griddle top, refrigeration and plenty of prep space.
“We have every piece of equipment for every kind of cooking,” Brough said.
The new food truck, which is outfitted with an electronic awning and speaker system, will allow SUNY Schenectady students to visit fairs and events around the region, stop by the Empire State plaza, cater events or go anywhere a food truck might be welcome, extending the school’s ability to train students and serve customers well beyond the campus.
“It’s a kitchen on wheels; you could cater out of it,” said SUNY Schenectady culinary instructor Mike Stamets, who helped develop the certificate program's courses.
Stamets said many students in the culinary program say they are interested in opening a food truck. The new truck will give students a chance to test out a business plan and menu before they try it in the real world.
“One day we can be serving Indian, one day Italian, one day Greek,” he said. “There’s not a set menu…. (The truck) can go anywhere.”
The college plans to formally launch the food truck and new certificate program during an event scheduled for Tuesday afternoon in the college parking lot. Smoked brisket and black bean cake, served fresh from the truck, are on the menu.