Keep on food truckin’

A new Key Club in Oswego, Illinois, picks an ambitious first project that feeds successful service.

Story by Julie Saetre • Photos by Laura Stoecker

When the Kiwanis Club of Oswego, Illinois, received its charter in 2015, members immediately set a crucial priority: establishing Key Clubs in the city’s two high schools. The club at Oswego East High School took off especially quickly, thanks in part to students there with parents in the new Kiwanis club.

The teens set out to determine a fundraising strategy that would support their service mission, and in the Key Club’s first year, they landed on the idea of a food truck festival — not exactly a simple first project. Still, they were undaunted.

“It was a good way for them to, when they were first starting out, really make a name for themselves with a big event,” says Robyn Vickers, Oswego Kiwanis Club member and the Key Club’s advisor.

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Following that “go big or go home” strategy, the Key Club approached the owner of Brew Avenue Events, an Oswego-based event management and production company that specializes not only in its namesake craft beer festivals, but also food truck gatherings.

“He offered to work with them as one of his community-charity, giving-back (events),” explains Vickers. “It exploded from there. It’s turned into a huge event that people come to from really far around.”

Now held each April and October on the high school grounds, the Oswego East Food Truck Feast regularly books to its capacity of 18 trucks. As part of their event contracts, truck owners agree not to sell beverages, leaving that duty as a money-maker for Key Club members. The students also raise funds through free-will donations from parents whose children participate in face painting, pumpkin decorating (in the fall), seed planting (in the spring) and other pursuits in the Family Zone. 

Meanwhile, a DJ spins tunes, and adults browse through booths staffed by local businesses at the Vendor Village.

“It’s turned into more of a community event,” says Vickers, “rather than just ‘get your food and go home.’”

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And before guests leave, they can raise funds for the Key Club in one more way: voting with cash for their favorite food truck. To be named “Beast of the Feast” has become a heated competition among vendors.

Fall proceeds go to a national or international cause — in November 2018, it was The Eliminate Project — while spring funds benefit something closer to home. This past April’s festival gave a boost to the high school’s extended special-education programming. The donation helped the family of an Oswego East student battling cancer. Funds from each feast average around US$700 but have topped out as high as $1,200 — worthy numbers for a fledging club, Vickers says.

“They’ve learned a lot. They’ve got the process down. It’s really fun to hear people say, ‘Oh, I came from Schaumburg,’ which is 30 miles away. And it really is a student-led event. It’s pretty impressive, I think.”

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Try this at home

Want to help your Key Club host a food truck festival — or hold one of your own? Try these tips gleaned from the Oswego East Food Truck Feast:

Get the high school’s buy-in. Oswego East High School supports the Food Truck Feast in numerous ways, from allowing the use of school grounds to scheduling the event at a time when an on-site dance competition, track meet or other draw will provide a built-in core audience.

Invite other student groups to participate. Add value to your event — and keep potential donors around longer — by arranging for other high school clubs to sponsor activities. At the feast, the school’s art club does face painting for young guests, while the future-teachers’ group reads stories aloud.

Book a variety of trucks. The wider the appeal, the more people you’ll attract. Include popular staples (burgers, pizza, tacos), but also think bigger — and smaller. Two of the most popular trucks at the Food Truck Feast have been a simple stand selling homemade-marshmallow-based s’mores and a lobster truck with a signature sandwich carrying a US$25 price tag.

Plan for the weather. In its short history, the Food Truck Feast has seen temperatures soar toward 90 degrees Fahrenheit and frigid days fill with snow. The Key Club always has access to an area inside the high school where activities can be held and guests can cool off or warm up in case Mother Nature acts out.

This story originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of Kiwanis magazine.


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