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Thursday, February 25, 2021

Follow the aroma of soul food to East Gainesville

Fat G's
Fat G's

The smoky barbecue aroma of Black-owned food truck cuisine leads to the heart of East Gainesville. 

Fueled by the nationwide Black Lives Matter movement, Black businesses have seen an overwhelming amount of support in the past few months, even with the economic downturns of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The food truck industry is no exception, and for Tony Jefferson, business has never been better. 

Swamp Religion Food Truck was Jefferson’s vision after more than a decade of working in the food industry. He started as a dishwasher at The Swamp Restaurant shortly after graduating from Eastside High School and, for the next 11 years, worked his way up to kitchen manager. By then, he developed his own style of cooking. 

“I got the passion of cooking and working with food, and it got to the point where I pretty much capped out at the restaurant, got a vision and aspiration to start my own,” Jefferson said.

Swamp Religion

The 32-year-old opened his own food truck in 2017 and now employs five people. Today, Jefferson’s goal is to not only to nourish but also to inspire East Gainesville residents.

“I do this to show the Black community that it is possible to be your own boss and have your own business,” he said. “That keeps me on my toes and keeps me waking up every day. I know a lot of young Black men are watching.”

swamp religion food

One of the menu items at Swamp Religion.

Food trucks, like his own, fill a gap on the east side of town, Jefferson said. There aren’t many options for residents as the landscape is speckled with fast food restaurants, such as Popeyes, Burger King, McDonald’s. Unlike West Gainesville, affordable grocery stores are scarce in the region. 

Jefferson said his clients hail from all over Gainesville and Florida. However, most of the support is from those who grew up on the east side. East side regulars visit Jefferson’s truck often, share its business page on social media and spread positive reviews about the food through word of mouth. 

Earlier this year, Ardell Wright decided to take a lunch break from his shift as the on-air personality for 98.9 Jamz, a Gainesville radio station that plays hip hop and R&B. When the 31-year-old arrived at the large, orange food truck, he felt right at home when he recognized people from Lincoln Estates, one of the many East Gainesville neighborhoods he grew up in.

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Music blasted from the vehicles in the nearby Swamp Car Wash, Wright said. He could smell the spices oozing from inside the truck. The Cajun Shrimp Burger convinced him that East Gainesville residents were in on a secret.

“We knew about it before everybody else did,” Wright said. 

He described the crowd as working East Gainesville natives with a taste for Southern food and hospitality. Clients swerve their vehicles into the truck’s permanent location on East University Avenue for a quick lunch break.

“You can’t have a viable culture without food and music,” he said. “Not everybody makes food, so the few people that do, it’s a big deal because it adds to the culture that is already there.”

To Jefferson, originality is important, which is why all the sauces inside the truck are made from scratch. He emulates his food truck menu after all-American bar food, such as burgers, wings and tacos, in addition to brunch options like chicken and waffles and shrimp and grits.

Food truckers stick together and push one another, Jefferson said. He named businesses that garnered a lot of the east Gainesville community’s attention and support — such as Wayne Head Southern Kitchen and Fat G’s BBQ & Catering.

Fat G's food 1

A menu item a Fat G's.

Gregory Brown said he was astounded at the support he received when he decided to open Fat G’s BBQ & Catering shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic forced local restaurants to close temporarily or shutter their doors.

The 30-year-old is a barber by trade with a passion for cooking. The idea of starting a food catering business began when a pastor of TheWELL, a Gainesville church, hired him as a private chef. Brown soon became the go-to caterer for members of his church, where he plays bass during services.   

Cooking is now Brown’s full-time job. Every Friday, Saturday, Sunday he stations his smoker, a large barbeque on wheels, on Williston Road in front of Bill’s Tire Repair, Inc. and serves about 300 people every weekend. Brown said he’s ready for his next step — serving East Gainesville from a food truck.

“A lot of the time, the weather closes us out,” Brown said. “Being exposed to the elements under the tent has been discouraging sometimes, so we’re really happy to have a food truck on the way.”

Fat G's food 2

A menu item at Fat G's.

Brown hopes his truck becomes a go-to for local soul food once it opens sometime after November. He added that he’s glad to see more food trucks sprout throughout the east side of Gainesville such as 3K BBQ, which will also begin its food truck operation soon.

“We all know each other and love each other,” Brown said. “We share each other’s posts. I’m really proud of what’s going on in the community.”

Contact Edysmar Diaz-Cruz at ediaz-cruz@alligator.org. Follow Edysmar at @EdysmarDiazCruz.

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