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Slinging fresh fruit and veggies in the junk-food capital of the Jersey Shore

In the land of deep fryers, where back bays flow with fudge and the ice cream rolls at you in waves, Bill Baxavaneos cuts through the calories each morning with two simple words and a dinner bell. 

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“Fresh fruit!” 

For three decades now, drivers for Island Produce have parked colorful pickup trucks all over Wildwood, Wildwood Crest, and North Wildwood, hawking healthy food options on streets where fruit’s mostly served on top of pancakes. It’s a tradition once common in inner cities, when everything from ice to meat was sold from trucks, and according to new accounts, it may be in some food deserts.

Along the coast in Jersey, the fruit trucks appear to be unique only to the Wildwoods, which is more of a food forest, albeit and sprinkled with powdered sugar.

“I haven’t seen them anywhere else,” said Dave Mayer, Island Produce’s owner. “I think there used to be a couple up in Avalon years back.”

MAGGIE LOESCH Owner Dave Mayer and his daughter Katie, 19, stand outside their business, Island Produce Market, in Wildwood.

Mayer, who started the business in 1989, said all three towns work with him to allow the trucks to operate but there are strict local ordinances. He can’t serve coffee, which people ask for, or prepare the fruit and veggies he sells. He can sell you a watermelon, but he can’t slice it up at the truck. If you want a smoothie, you have to drive to the rehabbed garage Mayer operates as a market and his truck depot on Park Boulevard near Ottens Harbor in Wildwood.

“Cape May doesn’t allow anything like this,” Mayer said. “I thought it would work in Ocean City, Md., but they don’t allow it either.”

Before Mayer’s trucks hit the road in 1989, other colorful produce trucks used to ramble around the Wildwoods, setting up shop by the beaches.

on Jul 25, 2018 at 12:16pm PDT

Just before 8 a.m. on a recent weekday at the garage, drivers were busy loading the fruit and vegetables in the wooden racks Mayer built into the beds of the trucks, which are often painted in bright pinks and purples.

“Just load up and head out,” Mayer told an employee in the garage.

Mayer, who’s retired from the borough of Wildwood Crest, employs approximately a half-dozen drivers who divvy up routes among the three towns. He works back in the garage with his daughter Katie, who is also a lifeguard. Baxavaneos, a Lower Township resident, is in his fourth year and as the veteran of the bunch, he gets the best route — Wildwood Crest.

He wasn’t in a rush.

From left: Bob Rinaldi and Brian See look at fruit on the truck of Bill Baxavaneos (right) in Wildwood. Rinaldi and See were visiting the Shore town from Waterbury, Conn., and Pittsburgh, respectively, and consider the fruit truck a staple of their trips.

The last thing Baxavaneos loaded into his truck was his lunch, a small tub of peeled shrimp. He brings Mayer a Starbucks coffee and Mayer gives him shrimp. The Ford pickup Baxavaneos drives is the plainest of the bunch — white with a few dings in the paint — and he’s thwarted Mayer’s attempts to slather it in bright colors each year.

“He really likes purple. I told him I refuse to drive a purple truck,” Baxavaneos said. “I told him, ‘If you want to paint it yellow, maybe lime green, we can talk.’ ”

Sometimes Baxavaneos trains the younger drivers but said success in the fruit truck is mostly about being personable.

“It takes a bit of effort,” Baxavaneos said in the truck. “If you don’t put in the effort and talk to people, it can be tough. It can be rough on the hot days and when it’s raining it makes it really rough. We do better when it’s hotter.”

Teaching them how to ring the dinner bell isn’t so easy. Most of them just whack at it.

“It takes a certain rhythm,” he said.

This day was a toss-up, muggy but overcast, and at the first hotel, the Adventurer Oceanfront Inn, Baxavaneos’ rhythmic clanging and “fresh fruit” wail attracted no buyers. People like to sleep in on days like this.

MAGGIE LOESCH Bill Baxavaneos of Island Produce Market is seen through the dinner bell he rings at each of his stops in Wildwood. The bell has become a hallmark of the truck.

At the Attache’ Motel, one man from Connecticut stood and marveled at the truck while a father and daughter from Pittsburgh inspected some peaches. They had a garden back home and were missing it.

“Fresh fruit? Are you kidding?” Brian See, 42, said.  “I love it.”

At the doo-wop-themed Aztec Motel, owner Adamo Pipitone, 65, came out to greet Baxavaneos. Sometimes Pipitone will let Baxavaneos use the bathroom and give him a free cup of coffee.

“It’s so unique, ” he said. “People wait for the triangle bell, and sometimes I’ll come out and treat my maids to some fruit.”

Baxavaneos said cherries are the top seller, the perfect thing to bring to the beach. They sell for $4.99 a pound and come from as far as South Africa. The tomatoes, obviously, are local, as is most of the produce, though Mayer said he does buy from wholesalers in Philadelphia if he has to.

Baxavaneos has learned that seagulls don’t like grapes, at least not the old ones. They spit them out, and unlike on the boardwalk, the birds don’t dive-bomb the wooden roof on the truck that’s been lovingly repaired and painted several times over the years.

“I didn’t build that,” he pointed out. “Dave did.”

On Morning Glory Avenue, just off the beach, Suh Gruppuso, 44, of Monroe Township in Middlesex County, just finished a four-mile run, dripping in sweat. She used the fruit truck as motivation to sprint out the end.

“I ran four blocks to find you,” she said. “Give me the ripest bananas you got.”

MAGGIE LOESCH A cyclist passes the Island Produce Market truck, stopped near the boardwalk in Wildwood.

Nancy Bouselli, 69, of Woodbridge was up on the balcony of her condominium having coffee when she heard Baxavaneos ring the bell. With a team of sleeping dancers in the condo resting for a competition at the convention hall, she hurried down to load up.

“I’m thinking, ‘What was that?’ ” Bouselli said. “I grew up in Newark and this wasn’t uncommon back then. They had fish trucks, bakery trucks, ice trucks, you name it.”

Bouselli dropped $22.

“My kids are all big fruit eaters, they’re not junk eaters,” she said.

But alas, in the Wildwoods, junk is unavoidable and acceptable on vacations. It’s best to wear elastic pants and hit the gym hard when you get back, unless you’re a kid.

“You’re going to eat an orange?” Laura Bevan, 38,  of Hamburg, asked her son with suspicion as they sat on a bench by the beach. “You’re going to eat an orange?”

On this cloudy day, Cole Bevan, 6, wanted the real deal, an honest-to-goodness piece of fresh fruit, not deep-fried on a stick, at the junk-food capital of the Jersey Shore. He’s a lifesaver for every parent who worries about the dental visit come September.

“Do you have any oranges?” the boy asked Baxavaneos.

“I sure do,” he replied.

MAGGIE LOESCH Laura Bevan helps her son Cole, 6, peel a freshly purchased orange from the Island Produce truck in Wildwood. She is glad there’s a healthy snack among all the fried foods on the boardwalk.

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