Food carts adapt on empty campus

Dominique Collins operates her food cart, Domo’s Delights, on weekdays outside Johnson Hall. Photo by Fabian Fontanez

Fabian Fontanez, Contributing Writer

Lunchtime on VCU’s Monroe Park Campus was once bustling with local food carts, offering students a plethora of meal choices from familiar owners. But this semester, Mary’s Empanadas is one of the only food carts on campus. 

Located on Floyd Avenue near the University Student Commons, owner Marcelo Munoz has his cart set up and ready to serve empanadas to passersby. Munoz said one of the reasons for his continued presence is student support.

“I have a lot of regular customers,” Munoz said. “I’m going to hold through, the hard time was the beginning.”

Munoz said he’s found new ways to ensure a stable income by offering catering through his website and serving at Dorey Park Farmers Market in Henrico on weekends. 

“Life has changed for many businesses,” Munoz said. “I survived for six, seven months since the pandemic started. Not much money, but I’m still in business.”

Munoz said he has ramped up sanitation at his cart and enforces social distancing for his own safety, as well as the safety of his customers. He said he also monitors student cases through VCU’s online COVID-19 dashboard to determine if it’s safe for him to sell on campus. 

Munoz knew the university had around 100 active COVID-19 cases at the time of the Sept. 7 interview, but he emphasized, “VCU is my home, I could never leave it.” 

Dominique Collins, owner of Domo’s Delights, a food cart that serves waffle pops and mini donuts on campus, faced delays setting up her business during the summer. 

Everything had been delayed with permits, licenses, and all kinds of things I needed from government entities,” the VCU alumna said. “It has been delayed for at least two weeks for everything, which has been extremely frustrating.”

Mobile Munchies, usually parked on West Main Street, will not be open during the Fall 2020 semester. Photo courtesy of John Chandler and Kathleen Farley

Collins started the business in May, but Domo’s Delights could not officially open until Aug. 1. Since then, the food cart has been popping up on weekdays in Monroe Park in front of Johnson Hall. 

“This is something I’ve been wanting to do for years, but I was scared to get started,” Collins said. “I figured it would be good to strike while things were slowly building back up.” 

Before bringing Domo’s Delights into fruition, Collins was a nurse. With the added stress and dangers of the job during COVID-19, she said she feels safer in the cart than she did in the hospital. 

“Definitely a huge shoutout to all the fellow healthcare workers out there,” Collins said. “They have the strength to do something I couldn’t do for very long.”

When the spring semester moved online in March, many food cart owners found themselves with a vacancy in customers. This led many to move locations or shut down, a decision that Collins said turned the university into a “ghost town.” 

After monitoring the cases on campus, Mobile Munchies owners John Chandler and Kathleen Farley determined they would not set up on campus after occupying their Main Street spot for more than 25 years.

“This summer we were closely watching VCU’s Reddit and Twitter, and Facebook,” Chandler said in a Facebook direct message. “I have a folder of 50 screen captures of things which downright scared us, referring to observances of parties and gatherings of all sorts, and passersby seeing a lack of masks in public on sidewalks.”

The owners said closing the cart, which was usually set up near Grace E. Harris Hall, was a difficult decision. Chandler said the consequences of a food handler becoming sick was too much of a “gamble,” and they have found ways to adapt to the temporary closure.

“We have resorted to asking customers and friends for help, something we’ve never been very comfortable with,” Chandler said, “some have VERY thankfully noticed, donated, offered us lawn work, and more.”

Though he wishes to return to the spot where his business started, Chandler is waiting for the right moment. He urges everyone to help bring the COVID-19 case numbers down, “both in our area, and city,” and hopes to make a safe return.

“Until then, we ask people to consider some love from a distance,” Chandler said. “We appreciate any support one would consider offering until we can get through this mess.” 

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