NEW ORLEANS — Dine-restaurants are closed. Many people don’t want to risk going to the grocery.
So leave it to New Orleans ingenuity to bring back a century-tradition to side-step the stay-at-home order due to the coronavirus pandemic: mobile food vendors.
They’re not hitting the streets in mule-drawn carts like they were 120 years ago. But, like a modern version of a snapshot from another time, fishmongers and produce vendors are hitting the streets, delivering goods to isolated and appreciative customers at their homes.
With more and more people reluctant to leave their homes, some seafood and produce wholesalers who have seen their restaurant business shrivel are shifting to personal home deliveries.
Mistretta’s Produce, for example, usually caters to about 100 restaurants in the metro area. To keep its doors open, this third-generation business wholesaler is now taking orders by phone for boxes of fruits and vegetables.
“We're doing non-contact delivery,” said Christy Jeansonne, vice-president and operator of the 70-year-old business. “We're trying to keep our drivers safe and everybody else safe as well.”
Jeansonne said the idea came to her after watching a news story.
“I was inspired by a story about an older couple who sat in their car for over an hour not wanting to go into a store,” she said. “And so I saw the need there.”
The transformation of Mistretta’s has been a win-win. The business can continue while its regular clients are restricted to take-out, and customers get restaurant-quality food delivered to their porch.
“So many people, thank you, thank you. I probably even got two or three bless yous,” said delivery driver Marquez Dedeaux. “If these first responders can be out here like this, we can be out here as well.”
Todd Slack, who lives Uptown, woke up to a large box of fruit and vegetables on his front porch Wednesday.
“They leave everything on your front door, ring the doorbell and leave, so it's a no-contact delivery and we have tons of good stuff,” he said. “I think this is going to get us for the week. We do have our 20-year-old son home from college for the duration and he does eat a bit. So I'm incredibly thankful”
On the same day, Mistretta’s was making deliveries in Slack’s neighborhood, fisherman Dino Pertuit was dropping off seafood in the same area. Pertuit normally sells his fresh catch to high-end restaurants like Herbsaint and Cochon, but now he’s taking word-of-mouth orders from individuals.
Slack was one of about a dozen people taking deliveries of fresh shrimp and flounder filets from the back of Pertuit’s pick-up truck Wednesday morning.
Rob Moreau heard about Pertuit and organized his neighbors to place an order. They jumped at the chance, giving Pertuit a delivery of more than $500.
“Right out of the back of the truck. Just like I think it probably was done decades and decades ago,” Moreau said. “During these times this is one of those nice little silver linings where we can get fresh seafood delivered right to our door.”
Patty Feaheny jumped at the chance to avoid a trip to the grocery.
“I'm trying to limit being out in the stores as much as possible, so it's really a godsend during this time,” she said.
Even with the mandated social distancing, these vendor deliveries bringing neighbors together.
“One person tells another person, so we'll be able to give a lot of business to these people,” Feaheny said “And it's really good for us, too.”
Moreau compared the crisis-born food vendors to the late legendary Mr. Okra, whose hand-painted vegetable-filled truck and amplified sing-song chants about his goods made him a local icon.
Moreau even improvised a cadenced Mr. Okra impersonation: “We got redfish. We got speckled trout. We got fresh shrimp, sixteen-twenty count.”
Moreau’s wife Linda Baynham groaned at Moreau’s front stoop rendition, but she gave him credit for stepping up his game in the kitchen as the family’s resident chef.
“He’s cooking up a storm,” Baynham said. “We already tried the flounder and it was delicious. We’ve been enjoying a lot of family meals lately.”