May 17, 2017 | by Elliot Maras

Food truck owner Aaron Rivera receives a check for his charity for mentoring Chainey Kuykendall, the grand prize winner of the S&D Culinary Challenge. S&D's John Buckner honors the winners at the awards ceremony. Photo courtesy of S&D.

Food truck operators in Charlotte, North Carolina had a chance to teach culinary students about their profession while getting some new recipe ideas in the process. Five food truck owners recently helped S&D Coffee & Tea select finalist for its 7th annual "Culinary Challenge" at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte.

Food truck owner DaRel Daniels mentored culinary students Gillian Howard and Ashley Gabrielsen.

S&D Coffee & Tea, one of the nation's largest coffee and tea manufacturers and suppliers to restaurants and convenience stores, wanted to involve Charlotte area food trucks in their annual culinary competition this year, selecting the theme, "Food Truck Frenzy."

Students submitted original recipes incorporating S&D coffee and tea extracts or coffee grounds. Charlotte area food truck owners were paired with students to serve as their mentors and participate in a taste test to narrow the pool of contestants from 20 to 10.

S&D's decision to focus on food trucks this year reflects food trucks' rising importance in the nation's foodservice industry.

This year's event gave S&D the chance to tap input from both culinary students and food trucks, said John Buckner, S&D's vice president of marketing.

Each year's S&D culinary challenge has a different theme, Buckner said. During the Multi-Unit Foodservice Operators Conference in October in Dallas, S&D executives heard Roy Choi, the Korean American chef considered by many to be the founder of the modern day food truck movement.

"We were just touched by Roy's story and bought his book," Buckner said. This led to the theme for the 2017 culinary challenge. Choi, who operates a Korean taco truck called Kogi, wrote a book titled, "L.A. Son."

"Little did I know that food trucks today are where great food and entrepreneurship meet," Buckner said. "That nexus is absolutely perfect for these student chefs."

S&D had previously hired food trucks for various team building events, so the company already had contacts in the food truck community. The S&D team also visited other food truck events to identify prospective food truck judges.

S&D seeks qualified truck owners

S&D looked for truck owners who had a passion for teaching young people. They also looked for culinary diversity. Participating truck owners for the S&D culinary challenge were: Aaron Rivera of the Chrome Toaster, George Leach of OooWee BBQ, Brian Stockholm of Papi Queso, DaRel Daniels of Street Spice and Scott Tang of Yummi Banh Mi.

After the food truck owners selected the 10 semifinalists from a field of 20 contestants, each semifinalist was paired with a food truck owner who served as their mentor for the final taste competition. The food truck owner helped the semifinalists compete before a panel of experts at Johnson & Wales.

"They taught the kids so much about the business," Buckner said for the food truck owners.

Truck owners educate students

Some food truck owners told the students food trucks are excellent preparation for owning a brick and mortar restaurant.

"You build your menu, you build your brand, your reputation and a following," Buckner said. "The food truck can be a means if your ultimate goal is to have a brick and mortar restaurant."

Because trucks are more limited in the amount of inventory they hold, the number of menu items they offer and the prices they charge, the owner/operator can get faster feedback in all of these areas.

"That milieu is absolutely perfect," Buckner said. "It condenses all the learning of a startup to predict future success in the restaurant business. If you can survive and thrive in a food truck, you are ready to go further in your career to be all you can be as a chef."

"It taught a lot of students who were affected by the event at Johnson & Wales that food trucks are a viable pathway to owning your own business," Buckner said. The event also gained a lot of media exposure for food trucks.

Benefits of mentoring

DaRel Daniels, owner of Street Spice, was interested in participating when S&D reached out to him.

Daniels, a Johnson & Wales graduate himself who worked in management at Olive Garden, Marriott and a retirement home kitchen before starting his food truck three years ago, appreciated the chance to be a mentor. He also wanted to give the culinary students an appreciation for the benefits of having a food truck. Daniels likes being his own boss and being able to travel to different locations.

One of Daniels' mentees, Gillian Howard of Memphis, Tennessee, won one of the competition categories for her recipe, "Coffee Shwarmas & Ginger Mint Tea." Daniels plans to use the recipe on his food truck, which offers internationally themed sliders and street food.

A second time winner

Student Chainey Kuykendall of Mount Airy, North Carolina won the grand prize with her "Coffee ScenTEAd Abura Soba," a Japanese-inspired dish that features soba noodles, chicken and a tea-soaked egg. She received $5,000. Kuykendall was also the winner of last year's culinary challenge.

Aaron Rivera, owner of The Chrome Toaster, the food truck owner who mentored Kuykendall, received $5,000 for the charity of his choice, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

The finalists' dishes and presentations were judged by the following culinary panel: Will Eudy, corporate executive chef, McAlister's Deli; Brittany Dubin, culinary manager, Krispy Kreme Doughnut Corporation; Bret Thorn, senior food and beverage editor, Nation's Restaurant News; Grant Springer, senior director of research and development, Bojangles' Restaurants, Inc.; and Eric Nakata, vice president of culinary and innovation, S&D.


Topics: Coffee / Specialty Beverages, Food & Beverage, Independent Operators


Elliot Maras / Elliot Maras is the editor of KioskMarketplace.com and FoodTruckOperator.com.

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