With social distancing in mind, a Juneau food cart rigs up a drive-thru

Pucker Wilson’s Mendenhall Valley location. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

Drive-thru restaurants are a little like escalators in Juneau: There are very few of them in town.

But like the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. And as social distancing mandates were ordered in March, a drive-thru burger joint was born.

Stacks of purple tires lead the way to Pucker Wilson’s, where customers are now greeted by an intercom.

You can order a cheeseburger and fries from your car. Next, you’re instructed to park nearby, and an employee brings out the food wearing gloves and a protective mask. There’s also a mobile payment system.

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Chad Edwards is the owner of Pucker Wilson’s. He built this setup in a little over a week around the beginning of April.

He runs two locations in town. Both establishments are small food carts, which customers normally walk up to. But with COVID-19 concerns, Edwards realized he needed to create more space between his kitchen staff and customers.

“I just kept driving past McDonald’s and seeing a line of cars around the block, and sometimes things are so obvious. It’s like the nose on your face,” he said.

That’s where he got the idea to pivot from a food cart to a bonafide drive-thru. It seems like an obvious solution, but Edwards said it hasn’t been an easy task.

Parts for the intercom system had to be ordered from Detroit. Inside, staff wear headsets and protective masks.

“We figured the best way to do it was just to jump in the frying pan. See what happens,” Edwards said. “So we opened up, and our first day we had a line of cars, and we made a few mistakes. I think we put a lot of sauce on burgers that weren’t supposed to have sauce. Little things like that. But there were no disasters. And it’s becoming a more smooth operation as the days go by.”

Edwards is in a camp with a lot of small business owners right now. It’s not enough to run the day-to-day operations. Businesses have to be nimble, whether it’s becoming a carpenter to construct a plastic barrier or learning IT skills to quickly establish a website for online ordering.

Another new thing for Edwards: He started providing paid sick leave so his employees don’t second-guess staying home.

He said these new systems he’s put into place for Pucker Wilson’s are working out pretty well, but there are some downsides.

“Now with the drive-thru, I don’t get to engage with too many people,” he said.

Edwards wants to reopen his flagship location, which is located close to downtown. Those plans are on hold at the moment.

The tiny food cart sits on a communal patch of grass, where people sit at picnic tables and gather for events during the summer — all things that seem unlikely to happen now.

Edwards misses flipping burgers and actually having face time with his customers.

“That’s what I’ve always loved about that. I just love cooking for people,” he said. “That’s a space where I can cook for people in real time, and they can look at me and we can have a conversation, and that’s great.”

For the time being, intercom conversations will have to do. He plans on the drive-thru location sticking around.