Keep Truckin’

Truck 54 serves up fresh healthy fare while erasing the stigma of mental illness

Heather Hoch

In a town that boasts nearly 900 food trucks and carts, standing out is essential for a new food truck. While some go for fusion finger foods and bright, in-your-face marketing strategies, Truck 54 is pursuing another path.

Carrying on the mission of Café 54, Truck 54 is staffed, in part, by individuals with various mental illnesses. The truck's job coach, Summer Disney, says erasing the stigma associated with those behavioral health issues is key.

"It's really about visibility. The truck goes out and gives people unfamiliar with the café and its mission a chance to see our work in action," Disney says.

The truck itself is, as she puts it, "the biggest one" at 33 feet long with a 22-foot kitchen and six crew cab seats for staff and trainees. Funded by the Community Partnership of Southern Arizona, the nearly $200,000 truck is outfitted to run as both a food truck and a full catering facility. However, special care was also needed to ensure the truck was a comfortable, safe space for trainees to go in, which means it has conveniences like air conditioning and noise reduction features that most trucks don't.

"We're always trying to set our trainees up for success," Disney says.

The café's executive director, Mindy Bernstein, agrees. "Sometimes when trainees are challenged we see them at their best, but we still want a stable environment," says Bernstein.

One of the truck's trainees, Jay, started at the café in the kitchen and transferred to almost exclusively running the grill on the truck. After suffering a traumatic brain injury from a car accident and also working with a Bipolar I diagnosis, Jay worked with the café for three years. He's soon to get an associate's degree in culinary sciences

"It's a really well-rounded program," Jay says. "I'm alone on the grill and there's a lot of pride in what I'm doing."

Jay grills up onions before the truck starts serving customers lunch to entice passersby with the smell. Another trainee named Lee begins organizing the expo station. While it may not seem like much to you, Bernstein says it's all about taking people with these largely misunderstood and poorly (if at all) treated issues and giving them the self-esteem and transferable skills needed to rejoin the job force.

"Our trainees have the opportunity to go from thinking 'I'm Joe and I'm mentally ill' to 'I'm Joe and I'm a food expediter," Bernstein says.

One of the ways the truck does this is by putting staff and trainees in the same uniform so everyone working are equals. The truck also functions as a "carrot" for trainees as the next steppingstone after working in the café.

"Trainees make it clear that they want to be on the truck," Disney says. "The appeal of a small crew means building closer relationships with who you're working with and having more ownership over your station."

Whether in the café or on the truck, working in the back of house involves a high level of collaboration and teamwork that allows trainees to see their value and importance in a functioning kitchen. Front of house café workers also gain valuable customer service and hospitality experience, as well as cash handling and other skills, that can translate to other positions elsewhere.

Truck 54 blends the front and back of house benefits because there is more "community contact," as Bernstein puts it, on the truck regardless of which station the trainee is working.

"We want them to be successful on day one so there's a sort of cascade of recovery," she says. "There's a very tangible moment for trainees where they realize they're needed and that we would not be able to provide food for customers without them."

While the mission of Truck 54 is obviously beneficial, you can't forget that the truck still is about the food, too. Focusing on healthy choices for both the customers and the trainees, salads, hot and cold sandwiches, and soup usually make up the menu.

Although the menu changes all the time, a grilled chicken pita, kale and spinach salad with house-made sage and chicken sausage meatballs, and wild mushroom soup are some of the options you might find when you visit. One of the truck's most popular sandwiches, the BART, combines bacon, avocado, ranch, melted provolone, lettuce, and tomato.

Disney says she and the rest of the truck staff are still working out the kinks in the menu, figuring out what they can do while still getting food out quickly, her work on the three-month-old truck is a rewarding learning experience for her each time.

"All of the people who work on the truck are passionate about two things: food and helping people," she says.

For more information on where and when you can try Truck 54, follow the truck's Facebook page, which Disney updates daily with menu and location information.

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