By Nicole Lauer | QCOline.com
MILAN — Any vending machine can spit out a caffeinated beverage and a bag of chips. Nothing compares, however, to the smorgasbord of options offered with a smile by Hasty Tasty’s Mindee DeSmet.
Ms. DeSmet is one of seven catering truck drivers for Hasty Tasty Food Service. The drivers, all women, make the rounds daily to Quad-Cities work sites to ensure factory workers, car mechanics and other blue-collar workers get the breakfast, lunch, snack or beverage they crave.
A couple thousand workers flock out of their work places to the beckoning truck every week, according to company owner Galen Starkweather.
Judging by their reactions, customers are just as crazy about the best sellers of biscuits and gravy or steak and cheese sandwiches as they are for Ms. DeSmet’s conversation.The Moline woman has been driving the Hasty Tasty truck for just shy of 32 years.
Ms. DeSmet is one of the company’s longest-serving employees, and she still enjoys the daily grind that takes her on a whirlwind tour of 32 Milan businesses from 8 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. Monday through Friday.
“It was really fun in my teens. It’s still fun,” she said. “I’ve made lots of friends.”
Customers are the best part of the job.
“I mostly just visit friends every day. I know something about everybody, and they know something about me,” she said. “It’s been a good living and great hours.”
Ms. DeSmet is done for the day by early afternoon. Her day starts out by stocking the truck with hot and cold food items and then heading out on the route. At the end of the day, she refills the truck with beverages, chips and other items to be ready for the next day.
On a recent Monday, Ms. DeSmet was giving change and handing out plastic forks in the parking lot of businesses while catching up with her customers on weekend happenings.Among her customers was Ed Edwards, a warehouse worker of Group O, who said he’s been buying from Ms. DeSmet for two years.
When asked what keeps bringing him back, Ms. DeSmet shouts out, “It’s me and my smiling face.”
Mr. Edwards chuckles and agrees immediately, saying, “That’s true.”
Kenny Franks, a service technician at Eriksen Chevrolet, Milan, has been buying from Ms. DeSmet for about 18 years.
“She’s a good gal, she really is,” he said. “She’s pleasant and takes care of you.”
Eriksen Chevrolet is one of the few indoor stops Ms. DeSmet makes. Every day just after 10 a.m. she pulls her truck into the service department, hops out of the white Ford cab and flips open the doors at the rear and side of the truck to reveal her offerings. The truck is refrigerated, with propane ovens in the rear.
Hot items range from French toast sandwiches complete with sausage and egg, to chicken strips, pizzas, burritos and hot sandwiches. The side of the truck displays a wide variety of beverages, many kinds of chips and snacks, as well as salads and other cold items.
In less than 10 minutes, Ms. DeSmet has handed out the grub, swapped cash for change and chatted up her regulars. Then she hops back into the still-running truck to make her next stop, U-Pull-A-Part. While there, Ms. DeSmet helps a few customers and then readies to head back on the road. Before she can hop back in the truck, a woman runs out of the office and yells, “No, wait. I’m hungry!”
This is a common sight. “My doors are closed and they are saying, ‘Wait, wait!’ ” she said.
Ever cheerful, Ms. DeSmet helps the woman pick out chicken strips and offers her dressing before getting back in the truck.
Winter is a slower time. Workers are less inclined to bundle up and check out the offerings than they are in summer. Even so, Ms. DeSmet’s arrival draws out the usual buyers with little convincing.
In addition to colder temperatures, company downsizing also puts a damper on business. Mr. Starkweather used to run 10 routes, and trucks used to serve second-shift workers, but there just isn’t enough demand to continue offering those services at this time. A tighter economy also has led to less spending money, and some are opting to pack lunches instead, he said.
Despite those negatives, the catering truck business he started in 1977 still is going strong. He said a key part of the business is the quality employees who serve customers no matter the circumstance.
“Whether it’s 10 below or 100 degrees out, they have to go out there because our customers are out there,” he said. “The only time our trucks don’t go out is if it’s freezing rain or a blizzard, something they can’t get through.
“If customers can get to work, we’ve got to be out there to feed them.”
Mr. Starkweather called Ms. DeSmet a “wonderful girl” who is a part of his dedicated staff. Many of his employees have stuck with the company for many years (his food service manager, Scott Miller, has been with him for 28 years) and have built close ties to the customers they serve.
“They get to go to the weddings of the children; a lot of that goes on,” he said. “We feed them lunch every day. Every day our girls are out there on the trucks. We get them (customers) out of the machine shop, the garage, get them out of the building for a few minutes.”