Ride-along on food truck provides glimpse of suburbia

If you want to get a look at the true Human Condition — to see the intricacies of what is happening in real life, away from social media, go out on a Ride-along with a Route Delivery Driver from Schwan’s Fine Foods.

A Schwans truck

That’s what I did yesterday in an excursion that took us 5 miles north of the company office in Santa Rosa, CA., to driving in and around an area that was no more than 2 square miles — in and out of the same streets and cul-de-sacs repeatedly for more than 8 hours.   

The daylong trip in the passenger seat of the branded diesel truck involved encounters with customers of all sorts, including a woman with an illness that is preventing her from eating anything (the Schwan’s rep still sold her gluten free brownies); numerous blue collar households with American flags waving and country music blaring; a registered nurse who has figured out a scheme where he can make $1,500 per day by billing insurance companies in what sounds like a fraudulent fashion.  There was more — so much more. By the end of the day, I felt like I had been on a trip to a foreign country — to where the “real” people lived.  

For those that don’t know, Schwan’s is a specialty food company, marketing everything from delicious ice creams to frozen meats and vegetables.  Some dishes are ready-made and marketed as full meals.  The all-day ride in the passenger seat of the recognizable green Schwans truck is the second step in the application process for a route driver job with the company.  A job with Schwans is advertised as having a $45,000 per year base salary, which boils down to $875 per week, or $175 per day.  Not bad, if you can fit that into an 8 hour day.  

But that is the rub — most of Schwan’s drivers work between 10 and 12 hours per day, according to “Jake”, the driver that I rode with.  Locally, Schwan’s has had a difficult time keeping drivers largely due to the hours that the drivers worked, which at one point ranged from 9 a.m. all the way up to 10 at night. The company has responded by changing the hours so most drivers start in the 10 -10:30 range, hitting their first stop by 11 a.m.  The goal, I am told, is to have everyone done with their shifts by 8 p.m. However, Jake revealed to me that there are many nights when he is still knocking on doors as late as 9:30 p.m.  “If I see a light on in the kitchen, or a TV on in the living room, it’s fair to knock,” he explained.  Jake added that more than a year after starting the job, that there are many nights when he is still finishing at 10 p.m.
We drove down this block 5 times. The customer never was home.

On the day of my ride, Jake had 60 stops scheduled, with 19 stops scheduled in the first two hours alone.  Our first stop was at a beauty salon where the stylists ordered cases of ice cream bars.  At the nearby office for a tire store, three office workers were expecting Jake and had orders ready for ciabatta bread, chicken breasts, and fried shrimp. One woman ordered a case of hamburgers, which I noted later on the ingredients list had been “irradiated.” 

Approximate 2 square mile area that it took 10 hours to circumnavigate

While these office workers seemed to be expecting Jake, the remainder of the day was hit and miss. While Jake ostensibly has a “route” set up with regular clients, most of the people were not at home. And many of the folks that were home did not want to order anything. Jake left friendly notes on each door that included an incentive to pre-order online for their next order, which would arrive again in two weeks.  But for every house where the person was not home, that house simply went to the bottom of his route list to be revised 1-2 more times that day before giving up.

It seems crazy to go out to neighborhoods with no assurance that (1) people were going to be home, or (2) that if they were home, that they would want to buy anything. Indeed, several people that answered their doors said that they had not run out of food from the previous two weeks, at which point Jake would attempt an upsell, most often with no luck.  At other homes, where someone answered the door but said the decision-maker was not in, Jake forced the issue with repeat visits throughout the day, hoping to catch the person doing the buying.

In one case, a man answered the door in his underpants at about 1 p.m. and said his wife was not in.  When we returned at 5 p.m., Jake heard a television set in the background.  He rang the doorbell — no answer.  He knocked on the door (8 knocks). Still no answer.  He repeated this sequence 2 more times. No luck.

As we were leaving, underpants man appeared, this time soaking wet and wrapped in a towel.  He screamed at Jake, “I don’t know where she is! I told you that she was not home! I don’t want you coming back here! We will call you if interested!”

In the truck, Jake took no responsibility. “I only knocked 2 or 3 times,” he said.

We had more stops to revisit, and I was getting tired. Finally, at 8:45 p.m. we pulled back into the Schwan’s truck depot center.  I had spent the day seeing more overweight people than I usually see in a year, as well as more houses with multiple barking dogs inside than I imagined were legal.  Jake said that I should call his boss, “Ron”, the following Monday to let him know if I was interested in moving forward with the job application process.  He also asked me to lie for him and to tell Ron that he had actually carried the black “specials” bag with him to every stop. I told him that I would do my best, but that I was also not prone to lying. 

Schwan’s is a great company — and I may well become a customer (*with the exception of the irradiated hamburgers!).  I am including some links below from others regarding the Schwan’s route driver experience. 
Schwan’s Home Service – The Road Ahead
The Schwan’s Man

Pitfalls of the job…

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