Call it an example of thinking outside theBox.
The food truck called theBox, where students at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business grab a bite on campus, is being converted into a test kitchen for new restaurant concepts under a business plan developed by Tuck students and the help of a local restaurateur.
The goal is to eventually hatch new restaurants in the Upper Valley backed by investors after chefs have proved their culinary chops with a menu developed for theBox, which will continue to operate from its spot near the Tuck School, according to the students and Jarett Berke, owner of Lou’s Restaurant & Bakery in Hanover.
Berke himself graduated from Tuck in 2017.
“The hypothesis is that there are chefs who are looking to go off on their own and are incredibly skilled and passionate but may be lack capital and some business skills,” said Berke, who purchased theBox from its original owners last year. “Then you have the Tuckies who can’t cook, but they have business skills and the acumen that can help a restaurant.”
And theBox “restaurant incubator” already has its first beta test: Caleb Lara, a former banquet chef at the Hanover Inn, has developed a lunch menu based on the Mexican food he grew up with in southern California. The food truck will reappear on the Dartmouth campus again later this spring.
The yearlong coronavirus pandemic has knocked out at least four restaurants in Hanover and several others in adjoining towns. Although Hanover has several new restaurants in the planning stages in Hanover that are set to open by summer, the area was already losing eateries before the pandemic.
TheBox began as a first-year project by two Tuck students in 2014 and evolved into an ongoing business managed by successive Tuck students, who hire a professional chef to prepare the meals and cook for an ancillary catering business. The students run the non-cooking side of the food operation, from selling lunches out of the truck to keeping the books, finance, marketing and strategy.
In the process, they put their book learning to work running a real, for-profit business, even if it’s not as glamorous as the consulting and investment banking fields that many Tuck students seek out.
“When I came to Tuck, I was looking for an experiential learning opportunity and hands-on experience that would be valuable in many ways,” said Omika Jikaria, a second-year Tuck student and former CEO of theBox, adding it that synched with her interest in “food sustainability and working in the community.”
Then, when the pandemic shut down the Dartmouth campus and classes went remote, theBox team got a real-world lesson in managing a business in a crisis.
Last spring, with the food truck largely idled and its sister catering operation suspended, the Tuck students involved with theBox began brainstorming, said Chris White, a first-year Tuck student who last month took over the CEO role from Jikaria.
“We knew we’d be facing challenges but also knew the food truck could operate in a way that restaurants hit hard by the pandemic could not,” said White, who spent six years in the Marines before he entered Tuck. (Berke, the Lou’s owner, graduated from the Naval Academy and spent 11 years in the Marines before coming to Hanover.)
The students began envisioning a new role for the food truck and catering business that could help to rebuild the devastated restaurant industry as the Upper Valley emerges from the pandemic.
They locked onto the idea that theBox could become a seedbed to grow new restaurants.
“We wrote a business model for a restaurant incubator,” White explained. “We had a clean slate that can capitalize on this opportunity and turn theBox into something more than a food truck.”
Specifically, White said, they foresee tapping into the Tuck network of alumni and contacts for investors who might be interested in backing a restaurant concept that already has a track record of six to 12 months of sales, thereby reducing risk in a business that has a notoriously high failure rate.
“We’d offer up the food truck as way of testing a (chef’s) concept at a lower risk than would be backing a chef in (an untested) restaurant,” White said. TheBox is looking to host one to two chefs per year.
The idling of theBox last year occurred just as Berke purchased the truck from its original owners. Through Berke, White’s team connected with Lara, who was laid off from the Hanover Inn and was looking to start his own food truck but lacked the capital.
Lara, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., pitched his concept for Mexican food inspired by his southern California roots and developed a three-item lunch menu featuring a pork taco topped with grilled pineapple, a vegan bowl and a “Cali burrito” stuffed with skirt steak, a Mexican cheese blend, Cabot sour cream, smashed avocado — and hand-cut french fries.
“It’s awesome,” Lara said of his french-fry infused burrito, noting that “it might not be something you want every day, but every now and then it’s a real mind-blower.”
No longer based at Achtmeyer Hall on the Dartmouth campus, theBox is now operating out of the commercial kitchen at the Quail Hollow retirement community, where Lara will prepare the menu items that will then be transported and finished on the truck. A typical pre-pandemic lunchtime sold between 100 and 150 sandwiches (the prior menu was Mediterranean with falafel, pita bread and grain bowls).
Berke said if a chef’s food concept “works and people like the food,” then with the backing of investors it can move from the food truck “to a more permanent location.” And if it’s a “flop,” then he can either bring the chef onto his crew at Lou’s or “we part ways having learned some valuable lessons.”
Whatever the outcome, Berke said, he thinks it will lead to greater dining options locally.
“There are a lot of people around here who think there is lack of culinary breadth and depth and would love to see another restaurant in the Upper Valley,” he said.
Contact John Lippman at [email protected]