Chow: Running on Empty

The TTT Truckstop stands ready to aid drivers who keep the nation's supply chains turning

As basic necessities and rest-stop options become limited across the nation during the coronavirus pandemic, the Triple T Truckstop is stepping up to make sure truck drivers on Interstate-10 have what they need and a safe, clean place to lay their head.

"Everyday day you go to a store looking for toilet paper, you got to remember it came from a truck," said Kurt Dandoy, president of operations for Triple T Truckstop/Omar's Hi-Way Chef. "If you shut the trucks down, chaos and mayhem is gonna be the next two words out of people's mouths. I can promise you that."

Dandoy is on a mission each day procuring much needed supplies cross-country truckers are having hard time finding—toilet paper, bottled water, milk, bread, eggs. If he can't find what he needs at the big-box stores, like Walmart and Sam's Club, Dandoy said he would try to find it at local grocery stores in the Tucson area. His daily procurement trips are not about reselling to make money, Dandoy said, but out of duty to his drivers and duty to the country during this unprecedented time.

"I go everyday looking for the needs and supplies of my drivers. They are vital to this nation," Dandoy said. "Without them trucks movin', we won't get the supplies we need in the stores and this country is gonna shut off."

While Dandoy is doing his best to make sure the Triple T shelves are stocked with the needed goods, he is also helping truckers with another problem they're facing coast to coast—lack of to-go and take-out options.

Dine-In service is closed at the truck stop's restaurant, Omar's Hi-Way Chef, but continues with a skeleton crew of three—a waitress, a cook and a manager—serving take-out from 6 a.m. until 8 p.m. Dandoy said he's had to lay off nearly two-thirds of his restaurant staff since the dine-in shut down started mid-March.

"That wasn't a choice. We don't have the financial means to fix that," Dandoy said. "We're doing less than 10 percent of our normal business at our restaurant."

Michelle Keller, the restaurant's waitress, takes orders at a folding table inside the lobby. Keller said business is "a lot slower" these days, but she's starting to see it pick up. Truck drivers often talk to her about not being able to get hot food while on the road.

"Truckers talk about the lack of options when they come in," Keller said. "It's been very frustrating for them. And we need them right now. We need them."

Restaurants with drive-thrus are still open across the nation, but a 13-foot-high Peterbilt semi truck is not going to fit. Furthermore, most corporate drive-thrus have an "in-car policy," meaning they can't take the order if the customer isn't in a car.

Josh Goodson, a truck driver for Page Transportation, said a lot of truckers are starting to boycott fast-food restaurants like Burger King and McDonalds for not working with the trucking community as their dine-in operations close.

"McDonalds, Burger King, places like that...they're not allowing us to walk up to drive-thrus to get food, which is a problem," Goodson said. "So a lot of truckers are boycotting Burger King and places like that not helping."

Goodson said corporate places like Sonic Drive-In have been accommodating because they bring out stairs to take the drivers' orders. He also said he thought Omar's Hi-Way Chef is a good resource to drivers since "they're taking orders, cooking, trying to help out."

But the Tucson resident said he stocked up on the necessities "just like everybody else" during a break from the road last week. He said he hopes the supplies will last a while because grocery goods are limited on the road and usually overpriced, even without shortages.

"I stocked up like everybody else last week," Goodson said. "I got sandwiches. I got food in my truck for whatever I need. So I'm hoping I don't have to mess with that too much."

On America's roads, there's many truck drivers unable to stock up in between runs due to being dispatched to another city after delivering their load. When they do have free time, the supplies they need is now out of stock or they'll be waiting in line for hours. Places like Triple T/Omar's Hi-Way Chef have become a beacon of necessity to truckers working on locked down and grocery-depleted highways.

The truckstop's manager, Kevin Risner, said truckers tell him they appreciate being able to eat a hot meal while on the road during the pandemic.

"We had a customer who said he's been having to eat cheese and bread sandwiches coming down California because everything's closed and you can't walk up and order at a drive-thru," Risner said. "It was the first hot meal he's had in a few days."

Dandoy admits he has fears of COVID-19 transmission at the truckstop. He said he's taken precautions to safeguard his staff and customers from the virus that could be easily spread due to the transient nature of his business.

"Everyday I worry about germs and what (truck drivers) may be carrying. That driver out there could be from New York, where it's real bad. Or Chicago. Or Los Angeles," Dandoy said. "Since it's a transient business, it's coming at you from many different directions."

Dandy's staff wears gloves at all times and hand sanitizer is readily available behind the cashiers counter. Employees also have respirator masks if they're needed and they want to wear them, said Dandoy.

For customers, Dandoy said the pumps are wiped down with germicide twice a day, door handles and counters are sanitized after nearly every transaction, and bathrooms are sanitized each hour. The truck stop has also increased cleaning practices of their motel rooms and for-rent showers, going "above and beyond" requirements, said Dandoy.

As the coronavirus pandemic gets worse in Southern Arizona—and across the country—Dandoy said he is going to keep his doors open as long as the government doesn't shut down truck stops.

"We're dealing with a different sort of business when it comes to the trucking industry. I'm even hearing about some truck stops shutting down their lobbies. They'll sell you gas, but won't let you in their doors," Dandoy said. "That's not going to happen at the TTT. We're always going to have our doors open. We'll always have our bathrooms, showers, and motel open. We're gonna to be here for our drivers and we're gonna to get through this together."