NACOGDOCHES, Texas — It’s big. It’s purple. It’s the Lumberjack Express. This spring Stephen F. Austin State University rolled out its newest endeavor — the Lumberjack Express mobile food lab.
As the only one of its kind in Texas, this learning laboratory provides students in the School of Human Sciences a taste of the real world.
“There are only a few food trucks nationally that are utilized as an academic laboratory,” said Dr. Lynda Martin, director of SFA’s School of Human Sciences. “It has been so exciting watching the students make the Lumberjack Express their own and seeing how the campus community has responded to this new learning experience.”
Four faculty members from the School of Human Sciences were instrumental in bringing the Lumberjack Express to campus: Dr. Chay Runnels, hospitality administration program coordinator and associate professor; Dr. Donna Fickes, clinical instructor; Todd Barrios, chef instructor; and Justin Pelham, clinical instructor.
In recognition of their work, they were recently awarded a Bright Spot award by the SFA Faculty Senate, the Center for Teaching and Learning and the SFA vice presidents.
While attending the National Restaurant Association’s annual show a few years ago in Illinois, Runnels noticed a food truck with a university logo on it. This sighting sparked an idea.
“We began researching the possibility of a mobile food lab that would be a true learning laboratory. From the beginning, we had a lot of support from administration,” Runnels said.
Soon, wheels started turning — literally, as faculty members and students worked to bring the food truck trend to campus.
“We had many meetings. We worked with an undergraduate student to develop a business plan, and we researched other food trucks and institutions that had something similar to what we were proposing,” Runnels said. “It’s been a learning experience for us all.”
Once SFA’s Board of Regents approved the purchase of the mobile food lab in January 2018, Fickes began coordinating the development effort. In addition to teaching, Fickes contacted people in the industry and worked with faculty members to ensure the new mobile food lab would meet program needs.
Barrios worked on creating the kitchen’s layout, as well as selecting the kitchen utensils. Pelham represented the food, nutrition and dietetics program in helping select the menu items.
A mobile food management course was developed that focuses on the food truck industry and directly ties in with the Lumberjack Express. Students in other areas, such as event planning, also have the opportunity to use the Lumberjack Express for coursework.
“Our goal is to provide students a timely, transformational learning experience. The food truck trend has grown into a food truck culture,” Fickes said. “It is a viable way for someone to enter the hospitality industry with fewer expenses and immediate return on investment. Providing our students an environment where they can learn through trial and error puts them a step ahead of their competition.”
Service at the Lumberjack Express began in February. Much like the Culinary Café, the Lumberjack Express is a student-run operation. Hospitality majors, under the direction of Barrios, prepare the meals every Tuesday and Thursday. The cuisine is based on various themes, such as Latin, Texas barbecue, Asian, Creole and Mediterranean. Music streaming from the Lumberjack Express and smiling faces inside the truck greet customers picking up their food.
“The students love working on Lumberjack Express and have taken immediate ownership of it,” Fickes said. “Guests have been very positive about student interactions, and they have loved the street food creations we are serving.”
The Lumberjack Express also will be utilized at outreach and recruiting events, such as career and college fairs and Showcase Saturday. Pelham also plans on using the lab for cooking demonstrations in the community during the Cooking Matters Program his students host annually.
To learn more about the Lumberjack Express and to purchase tickets, visit sfasu.edu/lumberjackexpress.