Typically, school buses smell like sweaty kids and brown-bag lunches, but a bus on Bend High School’s property is cooking up something different. Inside, students are nervously giggling as they grill paninis, and the strong scents of pork and sizzling sautéed onions fill the air.

It’s a sneak preview of the new dining option potentially coming to Bend’s food truck lots this fall: a pop-up restaurant with rotating menus inside a former school bus, completely operated by high school students.

In September, Bend High School expanded its culinary program by adding food truck classes, a Bend-friendly idea intended to give students a crash course in running their own restaurants.

“The easiest way to extend their learning from the classroom to the industry is by having some sort of mobile kitchen,” said Molly Markland, Bend High’s culinary teacher.

“This is my way to show them how to work a line, take orders and instill that sense of urgency.”

Markland teamed up with history teacher Danny Ellis to teach the classes.

Ellis said he was asked to help in the program because of his food truck expertise, as he owns the Phillystyle Cheesesteak food truck at On Tap in northeast Bend.

“I had the actual practical application of running a food truck, from everything from getting the power going to managing events, budgets, inventory, stuff like that,” he said. “I also know the community of food truck owners and operators, so it gave us a connection to that.”

According to Markland, the bus was donated from the Bend-La Pine Schools transportation department.

Bend High and the district’s nutrition services spent about $100,000 to remove the bus’ seats and transform the interior into a working kitchen, complete with a flattop, a conveyor-belt grill for pizza or paninis, a sandwich station with lots of tubs for toppings and prep space, sinks and storage shelves.

From the exterior, the bus was repainted deep blue and gold — Bend High colors, of course.

The students will be split into teams, with each group designing their own menus and business plans.

Students in the advanced food truck course will serve as managers, keeping a sharp eye on the intro-class students, who will be cooking.

Markland said this program is not only solid culinary experience for the students, but it will also give them real-world business skills such as communicating with customers and having a sense of urgency.

“It’s a safe place for them to try out concepts, a safe place to fail and not have to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars,” she said.

However, the Lava Bears’ still-unnamed food bus won’t be released into the wild until next school year at the earliest, Ellis said, as students just began cooking in it Friday and will test-run menus at Bend High sporting events throughout the spring, serving to teachers and students.

For now, students have been working on what food they plan on cooking and meeting with local food truck owners to get an inside look into the business — something that students like senior Ashley Jackson appreciate.

“I’ve learned a lot, and they’ve taught me loads of valuable information that no one else could ever teach you unless you talk to an owner directly,” Jackson, 17, said.

Jackson’s post-high school plans involve running a food truck of her own, she said.

“I want to open a bakery, but I’m starting to think I might have a bakery as a food truck,” she said. “It’ll be more affordable, and we’ll be able to bring the bakery to more people.”

Other students, such as senior Jordan Humphrey and junior Lucas Ngo, see the class as more of a fun elective option than a future career path. Still, they enjoy the class.

“I was pretty excited to hear about this, because I actually used to work at a food cart for two years, and it’s nice to get back to my grounds where I worked a lot,” Ngo, 16, said.

“What I’ve enjoyed most is all the recipe testing we’ve been doing and being able to come up with new ideas and broadening our horizons and not using the traditional route,” Humphrey, 17, added.

Even when things go haywire — such as Thursday morning, when the bus had no power — it’s an opportunity for learning, Ellis said.

“One of the things that’s a practical application is problem solving when things go wrong,” he said. “That is the nature of this business — something’s going to go wrong, invariably, and people who survive this type of stuff are people who figure out how to get around it.”

Ellis said the food truck community is ready to open Bend High’s young entrepreneur cooks with open arms.

“Everybody thinks this is a cool idea,” he said. “Anybody you talk to about anything relating to kids in school getting real-life experience and getting their hands on something that’s practical and hip and fun like a food truck … everybody’s excited and willing to help out.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7854, jhogan@bendbulletin.com

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