At Ideal Institute of Technology in Atlantic County, the career college is busy cooking up its latest social enterprise project. As part of the school’s First Step to Career program, young people between the ages of 16 and 24 are being given a chance to learn the ins and outs of running a food truck, handling everything from cooking to purchasing to marketing to bookkeeping.
At the end of the year-long paid entrepreneurship training, those who successfully complete the program will be able to pitch a business plan for their very own food truck funded by an angel investor group.
“At Ideal, we do more than teach—we innovate,” said Ren Parikh, founder of Ideal Institute of Technology. “Ideal operates around the philosophy of ‘earn while you learn,’ providing student-operated enterprises for our students to get hands-on experience. At our We Are AC food truck, a first of its kind entrepreneurship program, our students can graduate with their own operating food truck business.”
Open daily from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. at The Walk, The We Are AC food truck offers a variety of breakfast and lunch options, ranging from egg sandwiches to wraps to tacos to fries to bowls, as well as special boxed lunches. Orders can be made for pick-up or arranged to be delivered.
The truck is also available for corporate events; school functions; private parties; and hospital, wedding and movie catering anywhere in New Jersey.
Currently, five students are involved with operating the truck, but the program has open enrollment and can accept up to 20 people for each cohort. Along the way, they’ll be taking tests for each aspect of the business — from how to come up with an idea for a truck and its menu, to how to register with the state, to promoting the business, to accounting.
Sean Jacobs, one of students working on the We Are AC food truck, said it’s been a great experience so far.
“I’ve been interested in the food truck business for a while but didn’t see a practical way in. At Ideal, I’m able to get hands-on experience in every aspect of food truck operations, from menu planning to facility maintenance, all while participating in Ideal’s entrepreneurship program. The best part is that when I complete my program, I have an opportunity to own my own food truck through Ideal and their angel investors,” he said.
From a quick, inexpensive bite on the go to a place to sample exotic food or new ethnic cuisines, mobile food businesses have become more popular in recent years.
Besides being an important source of economic opportunity for entrepreneurs, food trucks can enhance the culinary scene of a community, boost employment, enliven streets and provide more food options in underserved areas.
Considered one of the fastest-growing business concepts, the U.S. is home to some 35,000 food trucks. The overall market size is valued at $1.23 billion and is expected to grow 6.4% over the next eight years, according to a report conducted by Grand View Research.
Hitting the streets isn’t always as simple as it sounds.
Aside from substantial start-up costs – anywhere between $50,000 and $60,000, on average, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce – operators must obtain the necessary permits and adhere to health and safety regulations.
Profitability can vary widely based on local licensing and operational requirements, as well as a city’s overall friendliness toward the mobile vending industry, which makes it all the more important for operators to carefully consider where they will base their food truck.
In response to growing interest in mobile food businesses from local out-of-school youths, Parikh wanted to find a way to create a work-based entrepreneurship program that offers hands-on, paid experience.
“This is how I can make that dream come true,” Parikh said of the We Are AC food truck.
Founded in 2012, Ideal’s mission revolves around providing tuition-free job training in fast-growing industries as a way to improve the quality of life for people who may not have necessarily been given the tools needed to achieve a self-sufficient and self-supporting lifestyle.
In addition to the We Are AC food truck, Ideal has several other youth entrepreneurship programs, such as appliance repair, construction, web development, office equipment repair, CompTIA A+ Certification, Apple Certification and a general entrepreneurship focus.
Each of the school’s student-operated enterprises provide professional opportunities for those who seek to become skilled and financially secure in a real-world learning environment.
Ideal also encourages local businesses to “spend with purpose” on those services as a way to give hands-on learning experiences to students, as well as to help generate “a cycle of educational and work opportunities within the community.”
To get rolling on its latest endeavor, Ideal collaborated with Atlantic City Youth Services Division in addition to securing a sponsorship from El Gran Chalan Peruvian Restaurant. Thanks to a subgrant from local organization Ocean Inc., Ideal purchased a food truck from a private seller and the school’s construction trade students repaired and upgraded it.
Channell Wilkins, Ocean Inc’s chief executive officer, said the nonprofit strives to “look at the community, see where we can help and oftentimes partner with outside organizations to fill in gaps.”
The We Are AC food truck, Wilkins said, “is filling in some of those community gaps, providing students with unique entrepreneurship opportunities and helping them develop their full potential.”
Parikh added, “As pioneers in the field of education, we are the first and only school to offer this type of path to entrepreneurship in the food truck industry. We’re excited for our students to develop into their full potential and grateful for the support from the Atlantic City government and Youth Services Division for their partnership.”
Atlantic City mayor Marty Small also applauded the collaboration, saying the We Are AC food truck benefits the community in more ways than one.
“Two things that have become a priority of the Small administration include taking care of our residents and providing opportunity for our youth they may not otherwise have,” said Small. “The We Are AC Food Truck checks both those off the list. The community gets delicious food and our youth have yet another option for workforce growth and development, a true win-win for the great City of Atlantic.”