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New mobile food vendor policy drives Net Appetit off campus

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Net Appetit, a popular food truck that has served Thai food on Santa Teresa Avenue for more than a decade, has been asked by the University to cease operations on campus as part of Stanford’s new mobile food vendor policy, which took effect on Jan. 7 of this year.

Courtesy of Philip Spiegel
Courtesy of Philip Spiegel, Palo Alto Patch

Chon Vo, founder and operator of Net Appetit, has operated the truck on the Stanford campus since 2001. All Vo’s profits go to Aid to Children Without Parents (ACWP), a nonprofit organization that provides two meals to children in Vietnam for every dollar donated by the truck.

Stanford’s new policy regarding food trucks mandates that trucks must register with Off The Grid, a food truck management company that has partnered with the University for the winter pilot program to bring food trucks to campus.

Assistant Vice President for Business Development Susan Weinstein ’72 MBA ’79 who helped draft the mobile food vendor policy, declined a request for interview but released a statement saying the notice about the food truck policy and its implementation was given to trucks operating on campus beginning last November.

“The notice informed the trucks that they would be required to have a permit from Off the Grid in order to continue [to] serve campus beginning on Jan. 7, and also contained information on how the food trucks could register with Off The Grid,” Weinstein wrote.

Vo was informed of the decision through an unsigned notice from the Stanford University Department of Public Safety on Dec. 7, one week before the University closed for winter break.

“On Dec. 7, the campus police dropped off the letter,” Vo said. “We only had one week to react, and the letter wasn’t signed, so we didn’t know how to get in touch.”

Since then, he has tried unsuccessfully to appeal to administrators, citing a spotless health record.

“That’s the thing that perplexed us the most,” Vo said. “If we violated stuff like the food safety, then of course we know why, but we have a good record of 11 years. Not a single violation– a spotless record.”

Students and other members of the Stanford community have sent Vo more than 200 emails expressing sadness over the absence of Net Appetit.

The mobile food vendor policy does not specifically state that food trucks must go through Off the Grid to be on campus, however the University defended their decision.

“Stanford has a long-standing policy contained in [Administrative] Guide 15.3, which requires permission from Stanford before any unrelated commercial enterprise may operate on campus,” Weinstein wrote. “Uninvited food trucks do not have such permission.”

“Other food trucks serving campus must demonstrate that they can operate in compliance with the [mobile food vendor] policy and be permitted to sell at a specific time and location,” according to the notice given to Vo. “Stanford has engaged Off the Grid to manage the process to obtain a permit.”

According to Vo, the process of registering with Off the Grid is not as easy as the notice makes it seem– when he applied, he received a rejection letter saying that all the available spaces on campus were taken.

Vo said that Net Appetit was not attempting to grow as a business or take business away from Tresidder eateries such as CoHo, so he capped the number of meals sold per day at 120.  The food truck was making just enough money to cover the cost of operations and give $200 a day to ACWP. Vo called the truck “a gift that kept on giving.”

However, because it is a nonprofit, Vo said Net Appetit doesn’t have the cash reserves of a typical business and wouldn’t be able to sustain itself without business from its on-campus spot.

“If Stanford doesn’t allow [us back] within three months [from December], we will run out of the cash reserve,” Vo said. “We have a month and a half left, and then we will never come back again.”

“The only thing we’re worried about now is that we don’t abandon the people who have been with us,” he added. “Some people have been eating [at Net Appetit] for ten years. It’s not because our food is better. Stanford has the best dining facilities– better than Yale, better than Harvard. I think it’s just there’s not enough ethnic cuisine here… so we concentrate on that, and we’ve been very successful.”

Stanford Law School teaching fellow Matt Lamkin, who used Net Appetit to cater Law School events, was enthusiastic about the truck’s service, low cost, food and mission.

“I sincerely hope that, one way or another, he’ll be able to operate the truck at Stanford, he said. “Selfishly because I love the food, but more importantly, because of the great work that it funds.”

The University will consider adding another truck to the lunchtime schedule, according to Weinstein, but it must meet a list of requirements including not blocking walkways or bike paths and not being too close to an existing campus café.