Story by Eric Wagner

Photos by Chrissy Skutnik

You might have seen it cruising around Harrisonburg: a brightly painted yellow truck with a blue emblem with “Dank-U” printed on its side. Or perhaps you may have spotted it sitting in the University Outpost parking lot off Port Republic Road on the weekends, the faint aroma of fried foods lingering around it while hungry patrons line up to satisfy late-night cravings.

In either case, The Dank-U Truck is quickly becoming a popular eatery in Harrisonburg. Established this past November by James Madison University alumnus, CJ Friedman, Dank-U’s specialty is its pita pockets, served fresh and hot right out of the truck. With a degree in international business and a minor in French, Friedman first began cooking for friends and family at age 13. Since then, he has always had a fondness of cooking for others.

“I realized my passions in life and was able to integrate them together, I love business and conducting it,” said Friedman. “I’ve always loved cooking for people as well.”

Given Dank-U’s mobile nature, Friedman used a combination of word-of-mouth as well as social networking as a means to stay in touch with his customer base. Using both Facebook and Twitter, Friedman reached out to the community with online updates ranging from special deals on certain foods, catchy songs found on the Internet or optimistic quotes that Friedman hoped would further convey Dank-U’s underlying message and vision. “I like the Dank-U truck on Facebook,” said senior Sean Fetterman. “I like it because it updates me on where it will be and when it is open. I like the songs the owner puts up as well.”

Friedman initially came up with the concept of operating his own food truck business at the beginning of his senior year in 2011. He recalled that during classes and on the weekends, the idea of owning his own business was never far from his thoughts. What started off as a college student’s idea to make a little extra money on the weekends grew into the concept of The Dank-U Truck. “I developed the business plan in September [2011] with one of my partners, Chris Ceccotti,” said Friedman. “My initial goal was to get it open senior year.”

Coffee Truck

Price range: $2 for a small coffee to $5 for a frozen specialty

Location: Kinko’s next to Bluestone Drive or near Urban Exchange apartments

Food type: Beverages

Hours: 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Run by 26 year-old Evan Butterfield, the Coffee Truck’s initial goal was to run a beverage truck to complement other food trucks. Since it started rolling in July, the Coffee Truck has served Harrisonburg and the surrounding areas. As the name suggests, the most popular drink on the Coffee Truck are the espressos and brewed coffee. Different brews and specialties include their frozen red eye and mocha, their sumatra drip coffee, and a cortado, a mix of 2/3 espresso and 1/3 steamed milk.  

Tacos El Primo

Location: 1110 Reservoir St.

Food type: Mexican

Hours: 11:00 a.m. until 9:00 p.m

Tacos El Primo arrived in Harrisonburg from California in 2005. Their taco truck can be identified by the brightly colored teal paint used to decorate their establishment. Tacos El Primo boasts authentic Mexican food while keeping their dishes simple and effective. Some of the most popular dishes include their hand-wrapped burritos and the traditional taco.

Mamma’s Caboose

Price range: $25 for four, $13 for half portions

Location: Bridgewater (Mondays), downtown Harrisonburg (Tuesdays), Dayton (Wed.-Fri.), and Bluestone Vineyard in Bridgewater every other Friday.

Food Type: Italian/ American/ Southwest

Hours: 11 a.m. to around 2 p.m. (hours variable)

Diane Roll’s bright red caboose has been dishing up some home cooking from her truck since it started in Pennsylvania. Her meals and food types vary by week, but some previous dishes include grilled chicken with herbs and bruschetta pasta salad, meatloaf with mashed potatoes, cheesesteaks, reubens, Italian sausages and their signature dish, cabooski — fried cabbage and noodles also known as Halushki or spaetzle.

It would not be until after graduation that Friedman was able to fully invest his time into his dream. With investments made by Ceccotti, Nick Passero and Larson Thune, three of Friedman’s close friends, as well as a local business owner, he was able to raise the funds to begin his food truck endeavor. “I think it’s profitable because the expenditures on their part are low,” said Anthony Pigninelli, a senior public policy and administration major at JMU. “I think food trucks in college towns are a good idea.” Through the collaborative effort, Friedman and his investors worked to bring Friedman’s vision into reality.

“We were able to work together and use our collective minds to integrate the business plan that we developed,” said Friedman. With the backing of his investors, Friedman decided that the next logical step would be to find the right truck to suit his needs. He dedicated hours of his time searching online for food trucks of all shapes and sizes before Friedman finally located the perfect match. “I ended up finding the big yellow winnie on Craigslist in Lebanon, Maine, 25 minutes from my house in New Hampshire,” said Friedman. Friedman declined to reveal the actual price of his purchase, but he was able to acquire the truck just days before leaving on a study abroad trip to Paris. It was in Europe that Friedman created the initial ideas for the items now seen on The Dank-U Truck’s menu. “I spent a great deal of time thinking about it,” said Friedman. “I also traveled to Strasbourg and Amsterdam while I was abroad where I was exposed to even more delectable treats. I think the entire experience helped culminate everything I’ve learned about food and allowed me to create a menu that works beautifully and deliciously with all the original danksters here at JMU.”

But before the menu was officially established, there were several discussions on what types of food The Dank-U Truck should specialize in for its patrons. Friedman offered his own ideas of how to best appeal to customers. “We went from wraps to specialty burgers to subs,” recalled Friedman. “And I just came up with the idea for the pita pocket.” Friedman said that the most popular item on the menu is the “Buffalo Danks.” “The food was delicious,” said Pigninelli. “I got the Buffalo Danks. It was an interesting combination of things that don’t normally go together, but it works.” Paying homage to D-hall’s iconic “Buffalo Mash,” Friedman took inspiration from the idea and created a tasty meal consisting of chicken, smashed french fries, homemade buttermilk ranch, cheddar cheese and hot sauce.

“The Buffalo Danks count for almost 50 percent of our sandwich sales,” said Friedman. “We have five sandwiches, working on six or seven. We are adding new ones all the time.” All of the food served by The Dank-U Truck was freshly prepared on a daily basis. Everything from the sauces to the roasted red peppers were cooked by Friedman on the truck itself. “I love the name of the place,” said senior Tyler Robinette. “The food is great and the owner is always friendly.” Friedman recalled that the initial title for his food truck was simply known as “The Danks.”

Friedman explained that “dank” was casual slang among many of his peers, and could mean anything from good cars to good food. However, Friedman ultimately decided to go with something that would be more easily identifiable with the public. As time went on and he continued to brainstorm, Friedman eventually changed The Danks into its current name, Dank-U.

“Dank-U just sort of came into my head as Chris and I were brainstorming on a Google doc,” said Friedman. “I noticed that Dank-U could mean a whole assortment of things …‘dank’ still has that connotation meaning something that is awesome and delicious for our generation, and the U could be in reference to the university that we’re serving — it all just came together pretty perfectly.” With five different sandwich combinations, five different homemade sauces and a variety of side orders to choose from, Friedman was always experimenting with different types of food in order to expand his menu and refine his cooking skills. Friedman claimed that one of the most important aspects of his job was being prepared for the peak hours on the weekends in order to keep things running smoothly. The busiest time for Dank-U was typically late Friday and Saturday nights between the hours of 11:45 p.m. to 3 a.m.

“We like to set up right in the heart of the JMU night scene so we always catch the awesome partiers walking to their next destination, looking for some dank eats on their way,” said Friedman. “Our Sunday Brunch is also very popular.” With the exception of occasional assistance from a roommate or close friend, Friedman is solely responsible for opening and closing the food truck, preparing the meals and maintaining the truck’s condition. Everything from refilling propane tanks to restocking inventory rests on the entrepreneur. Despite the long hours, Friedman takes it all in stride with a smile.

“People are always asking me, ‘Well you’re working like 80, 85, 90 hours a week, doesn’t that suck?” explained Friedman. “My initial response is always to say I’d rather work 90 hours a week for myself than 60 or 50 hours a week for someone else’s dream. I’d rather work to make my own dreams come true.” In addition to swiftly growing popularity among the community, The Dank-U Truck enjoyed the patronage of numerous loyal customers during the week, many of whom Friedman knew on a first name basis. “I have a very consistent, awesome group of regulars that come at least two or three times a week,” said Friedman. “Every day we have new customers coming saying that they’re referred to by those regulars — so my regular customer base is growing while my overall customer base is growing along with it.”

The Dank-U Truck remained open all week with the exception of Mondays. “I typically sell out of all my foods on Friday or Saturday nights,” said Friedman. Like any food service industry, food trucks were regulated by law to conduct business on private property. Friedman explained that as of the beginning of March, he would be paying for his location in the University Outpost parking lot in order to continue to conduct his business. He was also still expected to uphold the standards of health inspections and obtain a certificate of the state of Virginia in order to operate his food truck to ensure it follows health code regulations. As for plans for the future, Friedman wanted to focus on establishing his current location before any further expansion would take place.

“Eventually my goal is to spread Dank-U’s message across universities,” said Friedman. “The message extends beyond food, it’s trying to be the best and most positive people we can be.”