More often than not these days, it’s refreshing, if not a little surprising, to actually get some good news.
When all is spinning spun out, one aspect that always gets me grounded, and probably a large faction of you out there as well, is good food. That is something that never seems to disappoint. Even if that taco you are eating isn’t the best taco you’ve ever had, it’s still a taco. Things could totally be a lot worse in your life.
In fact, any kind of comforting hint through food seems to ease the pokes and prods of the ensuing daily endeavor.
A simple salad with fresh seasonal ingredients, tater tots, a tight frosty beverage after a long day, tacos (of course), and perhaps a near-perfect grilled cheese sandwich is what helps when you need it most.
Ah, the grilled cheese sandwich — childhood sensory nectar. Either fancy or wrapped in plastic, cheese between buttery bread, toasted on a professional grill or in an old pan, we’ve all had it and love it in some capacity.
Sounds delightful right now among the information and monsoon whips. Seeking one out, you will be happy to discover a truck that does more than serving up fantastic grilled cheese sandwiches. They serve for the better common good, too.
Special Eats is a food truck that empowers and employs people with special needs, while at the same time, delivering those aforementioned amazing grilled cheese sandwiches. William Harman is a longtime Tucson-based chef that created Special Eats less than a year ago with business partner Tamara Varga.
Harman is a father to a child with special needs so when he was approached to formulate a concept that employs those with autism and Down syndrome, he immediately got to work. Special Eats is now creating job skills in a city that prides itself on its cuisine while also appreciating our service industry professionals.
"What is the one thing that is easy to make and is super delicious," William asked me. "Grilled cheese. Everybody loves grilled cheese. Each special needs person we hire has a specific skill that they can bring to the truck. Some are good at prepping food while others are good at cooking or running the cash register. We work with them directly so they can be happy while gaining experience they can use to get a job if and when they move on."
Currently, Special Eats has sixteen employees with various disabilities, all of whom go above and beyond to make their food truck even more special.
Each bag that is filled with all sorts of ooey gooey goodness is hand-drawn by a number of artists. Images of superheroes, favorite movie characters, cartoons, and even family members adorn the bags in colorful, fanciful renditions.
Remember when a parent would write your name on a lunch bag and sometimes draw a smiley face on it before sending you off to school or camp? I’m not saying this is better but… it’s really flippin’ cool. It’s essentially art wrapped around art if you think about it.
Harman was brought in as a job coach through Tucson Community Connections, a center on Grant Road that's contracted with the state of Arizona and offers service to those experiencing life challenges. From there began the process of who would want and who would work out best for the truck.
"Some come aboard and are really good on the register but aren’t so skilled at working the grill," said Harman. "We were so happy to have employees that are great at running errands and going shopping without any supervision. It’s unfortunate that a lot of people think that those with these forms of disabilities can’t really function in the real world, but they exceed our expectations on a very regular basis. It makes me so proud to be a part of this operation."
Now let’s get down to the business at hand here; the grilled cheese sandwiches from Special Eats are extremely tasty. At first, the idea was to make a product that was fairly simple in its execution and something everyone will enjoy.
The skill set of those who do enjoy working the grill were so prodigious that Harman expanded the menu to include sandwiches such as the Spicy Clucker, filled with juicy chicken and spicy green chili, and The Porky, stuffed with grilled ham and tomatoes. The Cow Tipper isn’t fooling around either, which is loaded with shaved beef and grilled onions.
But then we have the Gooey Gobbler. This, dear reader, is a sandwich that will astound and delight for it is a grilled peanut butter and jelly sandwich that is matched by some house-cured candied bacon.
While you eat this, the bombarding hitch all around easily melts away and then glows deeper knowing you are supporting an amazing cause for some incredible people.
It does not start or stop with just grilled cheese sandwiches. Oh no! Do yourself the honor of buying, then biting into, fresh housemade cookies topped or filled with old school, drug store brand ice cream. Between the grilled cheeses and the cookie served with ice cream, I ate as a kid in the '80s. I was suddenly taken on a flashback snack journey with the rather weird but warming feeling that I had actually never really left or officially grown up.
In this case, let us hope it is the latter.
All of the sandwiches are crusted with quality parmesan cheese which gives them all a well-balanced and craveable crunch. William is a seasoned chef and he knows what he is doing. When the time comes for the next chef to step up to his recipes and grill, they can continue that delicious heartwarming expression of good food and goodwill.
Special Eats is partnered with Baskets of Love, an organization offering gift baskets, sweet treats, dog and cat nibbles, neighborhood art, and other goodies made by those with intellectual and physical disabilities. There is usually a table set up by the truck for you to peruse as you wait for that cheesy joy between cheesy bread to make it your way.
My advice to you is to get a cake pop from Baskets of Love. A grilled cheese sandwich and some cake on a stick? The notion that "things could be better" is one to question and ignore because the good news just keeps on coming with this truck, these organizations, and the fantastic people behind it all.
With our support, Special Eats can eventually procure other food trucks — possibly secure a brick-and-mortar site — which means more jobs for our special needs community. They're developing employability skills, while at the same time, serving up some of the best melty cheesy sandwiches in Tucson and beyond.
So, when you see the big blue and yellow truck manned by people with even bigger smiles, take a moment to stop by, say hi, have a fantastic meal, and know that by making that simple step you're brightening up the lives of a lot of people — including your own.
For more information and where to find Special Eats, visit specialeats.org or follow them on Facebook and Instagram.
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Mark Whittaker began his journalism career in San Francisco around 1997. It was for a small Northern California music magazine that segued into contributing to numerous magazines, websites, newspapers and weeklies throughout the 90’s and early 2000’s. Mark interviewed bands,...