Consider this an insider’s warm-weather, lunch-time survival tip for residents of the South and North campuses: Find that truck with the blaring, white “Little Blue” and the giant gray spatula on a bright-blue background, and listen for the loud music on its SiriusXM radio. If it’s a good day — and that depends as much on the kind of energy outside the truck as it does inside — action, positive vibes and incredible aromas prevail in and around Campus Dining and Shops’ newest food truck.
Manning the helm is Tom Acara, the 27-year-old single dad and supervisor of UB’s food truck fleet — Little Blue recently joined UB’s original truck, Big Blue, in the fleet. He’s UB’s champion for creating a “culinary experience” with a burning desire to outdo every restaurant iPad menu in the region.
“The longer our line is, chances are the more fun we’re having,” says Acara, one of the most personable, passionate-about-his-work-people anyone would meet on either campus. “That sounds contradictory, but it’s true. We really like that intensity. So things are going along smoothly, and the next thing you know there are 100 people standing there. Time to go turn up the radio a little louder and then hit the green light,” he says.
“On a busy day, we’re all dancing; we’re all smiling. We like it when it’s intense. We thrive on it. We love it when our backs are against the wall. It’s an adrenalin rush.”
It’s close to noon outside Greiner Hall on the North Campus on another perfect, temperate June day in Buffalo. And parked near the loop outside the residence hall, Little Blue has attracted a line. A Campus Dining & Shops (CDS) colleague had just leaned into the open back of Little Blue with a message.
“You’re about to get hit,” he tells Acara and his right-hand man, lead line cook Joe Hoffman. Sure enough, students and staff converge on Little Blue. Within a minute or so of the “hit” warning, there is a long line trailing Little Blue. Clusters of customers are talking and laughing and discussing today’s menu.
And the dancing and smiling inside Little Blue begins. Wearing his “Herd at the Curb” T-shirt and UB hat, Hoffman tends to numerous pita slices on the grill. Blue’s tater tots are in the fryer. Chicken for the UB food trucks’ signature Cha-Cha Chicken cooks on another grill. Melted cheese and cooked macaroni wait for the inevitable orders.
Little Blue’s signature Cha Cha Chicken recipe
Acara leans out of the window greeting his customers, making change, checking existing orders, helping Hoffman with his multi-tasking. He hands out food, calling out the names of customers, often by memory because they are return customers.
Outside, the Little Blue faithful gather.
“I usually come here twice a week,” says Mackenzie Davis, a senior business major who loves Little and Big Blue’s quesadillas and the pulled pork mac and cheese.
“It’s so different from anything else on campus. And the people who work here are really great. They know my name and they always call me by my name.”
Mitch Krumm, a senior graphics major holding a dish of white cheddar macaroni and cheese — along with tater tots topped with more melted cheese — loves the convenience and the atmosphere.
“It’s always right where you need it,” Krumm says. “And it brings you together with people you wouldn’t normally see.”
An interesting element to UB’s food truck popularity is how the appeal crosses that student world/adult world line. Acara would smile if he heard Davis’ and Krumm’s endorsements. He’d beam if he heard how Debbie Schifferle, executive assistant for UB’s vice president for communications, feels about his tater tots.
“I spend so many days eating lunch in front of my computer,” Schifferle says. “This way, you get to see people from other parts of the university. And it’s so much easier to wait in the sunshine.
“It’s not just the food. It’s a social experience. Everyone is outside and happy when they’re there.”
About those tater tots. Schifferle says she loves to see the tater tots “glistening in the sun.” She has been known to share this observation with others, primarily other UB food truck aficionados.
“I tell people that and they laugh,” says Schifferle. “And then they tell me, ‘You’re right.’”
This kind of adoration just fuels Acara’s passion. Restaurants — on campus and off — are evolving to the iPad system. Customers walk up to a computer screen, decide what they want and punch out their order on some kind of electric screen.
Acara finds that offensive — or at least the opposite of the “customer service” experience he tries to establish. This personal touch is the identity of the Blues, at least as long as he’s in charge.
“We’re not ready for customer service to be dead,” Acara says. “We’re fighting that. We don’t like that.”
“You don’t get that personality,” says Acara. “People like us because it’s a little different in the summer. It’s the vibe we put out. We like our music loud. We thrive on the chaos.”
“It’s a great gig,” adds Hoffman, student manager of the Ellicott Food Court before joining the food trucks in November. “We get a lot of room to come up with our own menu. It’s creative to work with food. It’s a form of expression.”
Little Blue’s debut is the latest chapter in UB’s food truck progression, as well as the newest example of CDS’ affinity for bold food service moves.
On Aug. 24, 2014, UB joined the national food truck craze by launching one of its own, the brainchild of CDS Executive Director Jeff Brady. In less than two years, Big Blue has become a success any way you slice it. Sales. Loyal fans. Creativity of menu (there are Big and Little Blue dishes not available anywhere else on either campus, Acara and Hoffman say). Star power of the truck and its crew. Feedback, especially through social media.
“That’s how we measure success. And by all our measurements, it’s been successful,” says Adam Coats, CDS assistant director who oversees the food trucks. “We wanted to stay on top of a trend. We wanted something that was mobile and could serve different parts of the campus where we didn’t have a presence.”
Big Blue even got a very favorable electronic snapshot in the Buffalo News’ Food Truck Guide.
“College favorites taken up a notch,” Elizabeth Carey wrote approvingly. “All the concepts on the truck came from UB students.”
Big Blue has been versatile. The food truck fed 800 people at a huge tailgate party during UB’s Family Weekend. An appearance by the truck was raffled off at UB’s annual Scholarship Gala — the truck served 100 people for highest bidder Teacher’s Desk, an organization that gathers school supplies and distributes them to city teachers. And Big Blue once fed a high school graduation party for a family of UB alumni and current students.
To keep up with students’ habit of eating on the go and grabbing something that’s different, CDS earlier this spring added Little Blue, a slightly smaller but more state-of-the-art vehicle, to its food truck fleet. On May 25, Little Blue made its maiden voyage outside the Student Union.
And earlier this month, Little Blue fed the hungry at Bills Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly’s annual Celebrity Golf Tournament at Terry Hills Country Club in Batavia — the second consecutive UB food truck appearance at the tournament.
Little Blue this summer rotates between the South and North campuses. For now, Acara posts information on the BigBlue Twitter account @ubbigblue. He tweets the location at 8:30 the night before, and then again at 9:30 the next morning and includes the details of that day’s menu. He deliberately waits and gives out information selectively to create some excitement and anticipation. Acara intends to extend this information to the Big Blue Facebook page before the end of the summer.
By the start of the fall semester, CDS hopes to have both food trucks up and running throughout the week. And one of the trucks will be at all home football games.
Both Big and Little Blue have left a legacy of ardent, loyal customers, at least partially due to Acara and Hoffman’s mission to provide a unique “culinary experience.” Both can rattle off, on demand, the names of their special customers — the ones who eat at the UB food trucks “religiously.”
A young woman named Shelby who works on the South Campus is one regular. She always orders a Caesar salad with tater tots.
“I don’t know if she ever missed a day at South,” says Acara.
Then there’s another customer who calls himself “Moe,” short for Mohammad. He likes to try out all the different menu items and go with something new every time.
“He’s an example of one of the regulars who likes to come to the truck to mingle and talk with us a little while,” says Acara.
In the end, it’s all about gathering a food truck faithful. Taking Cha Cha Chicken and Eggplant Parm Quesadillas to the streets. Getting Kale Salad and Pulled Pork Mac to the people.
“There are good options on campus,” says Erin Borovitcky, a rising senior majoring in exercise science. “But living on campus, it gets a little repetitive.”
“It’s more fun,” Borovitcky says of the food trucks. “Again, UB really has great food. But the food truck is a little more exciting. And I think the food is really good.”
Just wait until the next time Borovitcky steps up to that order window.