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Meals on wheels during the COVID-19 pandemic

APR's Pat Duggins
Customers line up at Rolf's food truck in the Downs neighborhood of Tuscaloosa

An APR News Feature

Alabama Public Radio is partnering with the commercial TV newsroom at WVUA23 and the University of Alabama's Center for Public TV to operate an innovative joint COVID-19 journalism unit. This story is part of that collaboration.

Restaurants in Alabama began operating at 50 percent capacity this week. Governor Kay Ivey eased her “safer at home” order during the COVID-19 outbreak. Diners will still have to exercise social distancing if they choose to eat in. For those still uncomfortable with going to a restaurant, there’s an effort in Tuscaloosa where the restaurant comes to you.

Customers are lining up for a Blenz smoothie bowl. If it doesn’t sound familiar, it’s okay.

“No offense to the older generation, but a lot of them don’t know what a smoothie bowl is. So, we’ll set up, and we have to explain what it is what we serve,” Riley Voce said.

His smoothie bowls include fruit chopped up in a blender and drizzled with toppings like almonds or Nutella. And, it’s where Voce is serving up his smoothie bowls that’s the point.

Credit APR's Pat Duggins
The Blenz Smoothie Bowl food truck

“It’s bright blue and it’s got a pineapple on the back, it’s got a surfboard as the counter top, that catches people’s attention,” Voce said. “So they come, and at least they’re like ‘what are y’all serving out here?’”

Voce co-owns a food truck. It’s sitting in the middle of the Downs, a residential neighborhood about 10 minutes from the University of Alabama. Voce is here because he was invited.

“I think we just saw on social media that a lot of neighborhoods were asking trucks to come, and we just started individually calling trucks were we had a connection,” said Lucy Arnold Sikes, who lives in the Downs.

“And, then it got where you didn’t even have a connection, there were so many that wanted to come to neighborhoods,” Sikes said. “We just started reaching out on our own via social media, is how I started.”

Voce and a partner opened their Smoothie bowl Food truck when Voce was junior at the University’s business school. He’d go to class, then sell Smoothie Bowls to fellow students. They paid mostly with vouchers called dining dollars.

“With the dining dollars, I mean that’s like Monopoly money to students,” Voce said.

Those where the good old days before COVID-19 hit.

“And then once we get the news that that it’s shut down,” he said. “And, we’re kinda like ...welp, we’re toast!”

The University of Alabama closed down over the coronavirus, so nobody was there to buy smoothie bowls. But, residents of the Downs neighborhood had been eating at home for weeks due to the pandemic.

Credit APR's Pat Duggins
Blenz smoothie bowls

“I think COVID has really made people more aware of food trucks and the importance of food trucks,” said Dr. Kimberly Severt, who teaches hospitality management at the University of Alabama.

She researched food trucks when they lived in the shadow of traditional restaurants. Severt says they still do, but COVID-19 has changed that.

“Restaurants have had to be very creative in order to survive,” Severt waid. “So even restaurants that may not have used a food truck, are looking for that business model to use to get out to where the people are.”

“We did a social media blast of…if you want us in your neighborhood, just let us know. And, the emails just starting pouring in,” Brittany Gentry said.

She manages the catering business for the Urban Cookhouse restaurant in Tuscaloosa. She also runs their Food truck.

“Well, my catering sales have been down, due to the University being shut down, so the food truck has offset that, so that’s been great for us,” Gentry said.

The Urban Cookhouse food truck is booked until late May. Gentry said it’s putting dollars in the till during the COVID-19 crisis. Some of the eateries APR spoke lost up to eighty percent of their business when the coronavirus hit. The blenders are still buzzing away in Riley Voce’s Blenz Smoothie Bowl truck. He said he has fewer customers because of the coronavirus, but the ones he has are happy to see him.

Credit APR's Pat Duggins
Filling an order for a Blenz smoothie bowl food truck customer

“They’ll email us or inbox us on Facebook, so loved you so much please come back to our neighborhood, which is really awesome to see,” Voce said.

But, that neighborhood fan mail also represents some growing pains for Smoothie Bowl. Voce and company had to switch from a University full of 20-somethings who used Instagram.

“And, now that we’ve gone out into the community, we’ve realized that market uses Facebook, so we created our Facebook and we launched a website so they can buy hats, hoodies, shirts,” Voce said.

And in the age of COVID-19, there’s something else. APR visited five different food trucks for this story. Without naming names, we saw only one food truck worker wearing a surgical mask and not everyone was wearing gloves. That left one observer a little uneasy.

“Yeah, the mask part. It does a little bit,” says one customer who didn’t want to give her name.

As her family ordered cheeseburgers and hot wings, the mask thing came up.

“I mean the mask maybe, but I think they had gloves on,” she says. “I think the one making the food had gloves on.”

We took that concern to Dr. Kimberly Severt who researches food trucks at the University of Alabama.

“But, I think it’s not as big a concern as it would be in a restaurant. Because they know…they know the expectation is different for a food truck,” he said.

The CDC says the coronavirus isn’t a food-bourne illness, so long as restaurant staff stay 6 feet from customers. And Severt has an additional point on social distancing.

“One thing about food trucks is you have the ability to separate people with food trucks,” Severt said. “So, if you have two or three food trucks in a particular area, then you can separate where people sitting, as opposed to a brick and mortar restaurant.”

Credit APR's Pat Duggins
Customer at the Blenz Smoothie Bowl food truck

“Today, the most popular was the sunset bowl or the oasis bowl. Everybody was getting that. The sunset’s pineapple, strawberry banana in the base. And, then Oasis, is blueberry banana and peanut butter,” said Voce as the day's noon to 2 p.m. shift in the Downs neighborhood wrapped up.

“It was a Good day,” he said. “It was everything we could ask for, coming into a neighborhood. We paid our employees and we paid ourselves, so it was all we could ask for, right now.”

Things are still tight, with business at maybe ten percent of what Smoothie Bowls made on the University of Alabama campus. Voce is waiting for those customers to come back. But, he and his partner plan to buy a second truck specifically for neighborhood stops. It appears Voce wants to remember the people who remembered Blenz Smoothie Bowls during COVID-19.

Pat Duggins is news director for Alabama Public Radio.
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