Dining Among the 18-Wheelers

Truck stops adapt to changing appetites and growing numbers of `four wheel' customers. 10-4 FARE

TWICE a day, Adele Platt and her 96-year-old father-in-law drive five miles from their adjacent homes for a meal at The Virginian Truck Center (Texaco) in Toms Brook, Va., 90 miles west of Washington, D.C., in the Shenandoah Valley. ``We eat the special every day,'' says Mrs. Platt, a widow and retired bookkeeper. ``It runs me $6 a day per person but it keeps my sanity.'' Her father-in-law is a persnickety eater, she explains.

Chef and co-manager Robert Cooper says ``People come here from 30 miles down the road. Truckers stop by, coming and going.''

The Virginian Truck Center is representative of the ways in which America's truck stops are changing. Many of the nation's 4,400 truck stops are broadening their services to cater to the general public, as well as truckers. Truck stops have ``come a long way from the 25-seat counter in a diner environment to upwards of 275 seats in a 40-acre complex,'' says Frank Bader, who manages national truck stop accounts for Graphic Menus Inc. ``An interstate truck stop is a city within itself,'' he adds.

Today's travelers on American highways can pull in to a truck stop 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. There, besides buying fuel, they may shop for everything from truck accessories (chrome-plated lug nuts, perhaps) to necklaces, TVs, snack food, and billed caps (``My Wife Ran Away With My Best Friend,'' reads one, ``And I Miss Him''). They might cash checks, transfer money, launder clothes, telephone (half the interstate truck stops have phones in the restaurant booths), pray in a nondenominational chapel, watch a movie, play games, send telegrams, fax documents, and sleep in an inexpensive motel (around $25 a night).

More and more, truck stops are adapting to accommodate families and other ``civilian'' travelers. ``Our members are finding it necessary to be competitive among themselves for RVs, four-wheel traffic, and senior citizens who arrive in buses,'' says Roger King, spokesman for The National Association of Truck Stop Operators. About 20 percent of truck-stop business is from non-truckers and that percentage is rising, says Mr. King.

Truck-stop restaurateurs are upgrading menus to suit changing tastes. Kitchens have gone from short-order grills and deep-fat fryers to fully equipped restaurant-style kitchens. They can broil and bake foods, now, and use fewer steam tables, preparing food as needed instead.

The traditional truck-stop favorites, steak and potatoes, are still popular, but ``Truckers' tastes have changed just like the average American's,'' says Mr. King.

Salad bars, for example, have recently entered truck stops in a big way. Three years ago, there was nothing like them at truck stops. Now they are focal points.

The salad bar at the Petro Travel Plaza in Portage, Wis., midway between the Twin Cities and Chicago, is ``as big as a truck,'' says manager Jim Coetz Sr. The 30-foot-long salad bar at Mr. J's restaurant in the Elgin West 90-76 Truck Stop, 36 miles from Chicago's O'Hare Airport, includes spinach, cole slaw, fruits, cold pasta, bean salad, and condiments.

Tracy Roadcap, a sophomore at Messiah College, visits the Carlisle, Pa., Texaco Truck Plaza 30 minutes from her campus once or twice a month. ``Here, I eat spaghetti for $5.99,'' she says. ``I've seen it elsewhere for $9.99.''

Average truck-stop prices are 10 to 15 percent lower than independent, privately operated restaurants, according to restaurant consultant Dan Winer. The average dinner buffet at a truck stop costs $6.02, he says. And portions tend to be larger - ``upwards of one-fourth bigger than what you find at many non-truck-stop restaurants,'' adds Mr. Bader.

Many truck stop restaurants also have childrens' menus, typically with five items: hot dogs, hamburgers, chicken, spaghetti, and fish fillets, priced from 95 cents to $1.95. ``We have the finest family restaurants in the United States of America,'' claims Mr. Coetz of Petro Travel Plaza. ``We have a secure environment for the traveler with lots of activity. People enjoy watching 18-wheelers being fueled and lifted by 40-ton towing and recovering units.''

Occasionally, some famous folks pull into truck stops. With 15 minutes' notice, Jack Hamilton, owner of the La Salle/Peru Auto/Truckstop outside of Chicago, readied his 180-seat restaurant for then-Vice President Bush. Mr. Bush arrived with a 250-person campaign entourage, including Illinois Gov. James Thompson, secret service agents, and country singers Lorretta Lynn, Crystal Gayle, and Peggy Sue.

Mr. Bush sat at the ``Drivers Only'' counter to eat meat loaf, a taco salad, and strawberry shortcake. He left a $50 tip, instructing Mr. Hamilton to ``be sure all [six] girls split it.''

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