Johnston’s mobile kitchen plays role in hurricane recovery relief efforts

Lazaro Aleman
ECB Publishing, Inc.

Even though Hurricane Michael largely spared Jefferson County several weeks ago, one local business is still heavily engaged in the post-hurricane recovery effort.
That business is Johnston's Meat Market, a family-owned establishment that specializes in hickory-smoked meats and that has had a presence in Monticello since the 1920s.
Right before the storm struck on Oct. 10, Tallahassee Utilities, which has a contract with Johnston's, put the latter on notice that its food-prepping services would likely be needed, according to Blake Bennett, whose maternal great-grandparents Felix and Alice Johnston founded the business in 1926.
“We rode the storm out at Tallahassee Utilities' place in Tallahassee,” said Bennett, whose father, Hal Bennett, is Johnston's present-day owner.
Bennet said Johnston's operation consisted of a crew of about seven people, including himself and his father, and the company's supply truck and mobile kitchen trailer, which functions as an emergency food response unit capable of serving up to 10,000 daily meals.
“We can feed a meal a day to 10,000 people,” Bennett said.
He said that as soon as the storm passed and the restoration effort kicked into gear, Johnston's crews did likewise, preparing breakfast for the thousand or so linemen and city workers who were readying to go out that morning in the wake of the storm to deal with its devastation.
He said that as soon as breakfast was done, the crew turned around and began preparing lunches and then dinners. All told, Bennett said, Johnston's crew was making 1,000 meals three times daily – breakfast, lunch and dinner. Any leftover food, he said, Johnston's donated to the shelters for distribution.
“We went up to feeding 1,500 people three times a day by the time we left,” Bennett said. “We were there a week.”
He said the food served ranged from eggs, grits, sausages, biscuits and gravy and hash-browns, to chicken sandwiches and hamburgers and fries, to full-course country meals that included barbecued chicken, black-eye peas, cornbread, lima beans and the like.
“We tried to switch it up,” Bennett said.
Additionally, he said, the kitchen provided the linemen and city workers with chips, peanut and butter sandwiches, and other snacks for when they were working in the field.
He said the days typically began at 2:30 a.m. with the food preparations and wouldn't end until about 11 p.m. All the while, he said, they were dealing with tubs of foods, cooking in huge pots and “coolers that were slam full of chicken.”
“We can cook some food now,” Bennett said in a mix of wonder and understandable braggadocio.
He said once the operation ceased in Leon County after a week, the crew rested two days and then headed for Blountstown in Calhoun County, where the mobile kitchen was still stationed as of this week.
“We're now feeding 100 linemen and city workers three times a day,” Bennett said, adding that the Calhoun operation was “a piece of cake after Tallahassee.”
He said the agreement initially called for Johnston's to be in Calhoun County a week. But late last week, officials there informed his father that the service would be needed another two weeks.