SouperVan: Small Kitchen, Big Mission

The social enterprise builds 'cost of doing good' into every healthy meal.

By Amber E. Hopkins-Jenkins, Courtesy of Rutgers Today

SouperVan, a New Brunswick food truck that offers a healthy alternative to fast food, has a hefty mission and a burgeoning following.

“Everyday, we wake up and we’re hungry,” says Nicholas Kubian, a Rutgers alumnus who co-founded SouperVan. “Hunger is a perpetual human problem requiring perpetual solutions. Ours is a system that can continue to address this universal problem."

Kubian and his business partners Dominick Rodriguez and Paul Deraval launched SouperVan to provide an affordable, quickly prepared menu that is both good for you and does good for others.  

By building “the cost of doing good” into their overhead like an ingredient, the SouperVan’s co-founders ensure that each meal purchased by the food truck's customers helps defray the cost of meals for the less fortunate.

During its first year – SouperVan just celebrated its first anniversary in August – the truck donated funds to cover more than 6,000 meals at Elijah’s Promise, a New Brunswick-based soup kitchen that provides 300 to 400 meals to lower income individuals each day at its Neilson Street location.

Rodriguez believes that money is the best way to alleviate hunger. “Soup kitchens are able to leverage the cash with other resources to purchase food,” he says. “Instead of donating food, donate a dollar. Money doesn’t expire.”

In addition to contributing proceeds to local hunger relief efforts,  SouperVan encourages the cycle of social benefit by sourcing its fresh ingredients from local producers and hiring local staff.

The bright yellow food truck, which parks near Rutgers’ Douglass Campus Center Mondays through Thursdays from 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., boasts a healthy and affordable menu prepared using steam – no oil – and seasonal, sustainable, local ingredients.

One of the food truck’s best-selling menu items since its first appearance at Rutgers in August 2011is its signature Fiji BBQ press, a whole wheat wrap filled with smoked tempeh and gouda, carmellized onions, and agave mustard. And the cannolis are a hit, too.

Cannolis on a healthy food truck?

"It's not just what you eat, but how you eat," says Rodriguez. "Keep the calorie count down and portions small."

The SouperVan founders set out to not only provide customers with affordable healthy food but to also offer livable wage jobs and inspire others to view business in a more holistic sense.

Kubian describes their business model as having a “triple bottom line” in which people, including employees and customers, and the environment are as important as profitability. 

“Even the most ardent capitalist can devote his or her life to positive things for future generations,” Kubian says. “It makes good business sense to be a good business.”

The SouperVan operates under the umbrella of Rutgers Against Hunger, a universitywide initiative launched in 2008 that addresses hunger issues across the state of New Jersey. As part of the partnership, the social enterprise uses Elijah's Promise's commercial kitchen space and storage to supplement the small kitchen space on the truck and hires graduates of the soup kitchen’s culinary training program.

“Soup kitchens need revenue streams and this is a self-sustaining business model that can be replicated,” says Lisanne Finston, executive director of Elijah’s Promise, who has noticed an uptick in need since the recession began.

“It’s an important model and funding mechanism for charitable organizations to pay attention to,” says Finston.

Rodriguez hopes the SouperVan will become a business model for other social entrepreneurs to emulate once they’ve worked out the kinks.

“We’re taking this one truck at a time!”

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