It's big and yellow and barely coughed to life in the cold, but Pete Haga said his food truck is coming to a corner near you this spring.
Haga won a Knight Cities Challenge grant worth more than $100,000 for his project, and the truck now is parked in storage in East Grand Forks. He calls it "Uber for food trucks"-a kitchen on wheels local entrepreneurs can rent to build food service and business skills. After buying the used truck in August and having it outfitted the next several months, Haga picked it up Friday in the Twin Cities and drove it to North Dakota, where it awaits a fresh logo and warmer weather.
"It handled about as well as a sailboat on wheels would handle. Every breeze, you could feel," Haga said of the drive back home, joking that the group bringing the barely heated truck to town would stop every so often to get the feeling back in their toes. "When the semis come through, they push you to the right, and when they're just about ready to pass you, they pull you to the left. You're able to do a little bit of physics in your head when you have six hours to think about all these factors."
Haga's project is aimed at new Americans. Not only will his rental truck give them a chance to try the local market, but he said it also will help customers build familiarity and comfort with other cultures.
Elias Dean, a Somali refugee and owner of Steers, which serves his native country's cuisine at 2915 S. Washington St., is one hopeful renter. He imagines selling samosas-dumplings filled with ground beef and onions-and other finger foods to late-night customers downtown. A quick glance at the demand for Taco Bell and Domino's Pizza tells him everything he needs to know, he said.
"It will expose our business," Dean said, adding he expects enough demand that he probably won't even need the truck's kitchen. It just might be better to have it stocked and replenished by restaurant runners, he said. "It will expose our restaurant to a lot of students who do not know (about it)."
Haga has kept that vision in mind throughout the project.
"This is where the magic happens," Haga said, standing inside the truck with its brand-new kitchen, complete with a new floor and all the trappings necessary to feed a hungry crowd. There's a refrigerator, deep fryer, sink, stove and oven. Haga says work remains, but he plans to have the truck rolling for the Grand Cities Art Fest in June at the latest.
Dubbed "New Flavors" in a nod to its mission to bring new restaurateurs and cultures to hungry diners, the project boasts about a half-dozen members on its board of directors. Early partners include Cynthia Shabb, executive director of the Global Friends Coalition, and Barry Wilfahrt, who heads the local Chamber.
Haga and the New Flavors team bought the vehicle, a 2009 Chevrolet WorkHorse and former grocery truck, from a St. Cloud-area dealer for about $12,000 in August. The truck later was outfitted with kitchen appliances-and a suspension to hold its new weight-for about $50,000.
Now the work of the organization turns to finer details, such as branding and rental policy. Although the truck mostly is aimed at new Americans, Wilfahrt said he expects the group to fill its schedule with food from other demographics as time allows. Haga says he also hopes to see a strong mentorship component to help renters grow their business skills.
"We anticipate even some of the renters almost going through a tasting-type process," Haga said. "For those who think they want to be renting the truck, we'll be talking to them about what types of foods, maybe going so far as asking for samples."
Wilfahrt joked that no one "is going to get rich running the food truck," but pointed out its importance for the community.
"I grew up in the 'melting pot' era of the '60s, and I still really believe that's true," he said. "There's something to be learned from every culture."
Haga is Grand Forks' community and government relations officer, but he stressed the project has nothing to do with his job. He said his vision is all coming together.
"As soon as it's warmer, we'll be out on the street," he said.