MARTINSBURG, W.VA. -- At the counter for "professional drivers only," trucker David Hoffman is waiting for a ham and cheese omelet and drinking the first of six or seven cups of coffee he will have for lunch. Hoffman, 37, says he leads a stressful life, smokes two packs of cigarettes and drinks about 20 cups of coffee daily.
"Truck drivers are practically demanding to have heart attacks," he says at the Unocal 76 Auto/TruckStop restaurant off Interstate 81 South, on his way from Tennessee to Philadelphia with a load of Oscar Mayer bologna.
What they are not demanding -- at least on this particular day at this particular truck stop -- is the list of options on the menu geared to the health conscious: scrambled "eggs," omelets and french toast made with Eggbeaters, tomatoes stuffed with tuna salad, sliced turkey sandwiches, baked cod.
Hoffman, big blue eyes under the brim of his Bridgestone cap, proclaims with an air of bravado that he never orders an omelet made with Eggbeaters. "I want real eggs. I want all the cholesterol I can get."
In a gallant effort to reverse that attitude, Unocal Corp. and other major truck stops are featuring heart-healthy cuisine to a population on the run.
Unocal, the country's largest full-service truck stop operator with 146 auto/truck stops along Interstate highways, started its "Power Food" promotion two years ago. At this point, 57 percent of the chain's restaurants are on the program.
Aside from the breakfast items served at the stop here in Martinsburg, franchise restaurants may serve griddled halibut steak with a baked potato with low-fat yogurt topping, marinated chicken breast salad or a breaded veal steak. All recipes, reviewed by the American Heart Association, provide substantial calories while being relatively low in fat.
"Truck drivers aren't looking for little leafy green things," explained Tom Guiney, manager of restaurant and store programs for Unocal.
To a truck driver, eating on the lighter side "could mean a salad bar with a gallon of blue cheese dressing," said Ray Ganem, supervisor of restaurant and hospitality programs for Truck Stops of America, a truck stop chain that has an "On the Lighter Side" section on its Country Pride restaurant menus. Ganem said the offerings, which include Mexican, seafood and chef's salads, "may not be what the doctor prescribed," but that they are lighter than many of the other menu items.
At its Iron Skillet restaurants, Petro Stopping Centers, Inc. offers a Lighter Fare section on its menus with broiled chicken breast, broiled fish and a tuna salad plate. The 28-stop nationwide chain offers a 33-item salad bar with fresh fruit and low-calorie salad dressing, according to Iron Skillet president John Colman. In addition, an "Eat Smart" brochure available at each stop lists the calories, fat, cholesterol and sodium of the Lighter Fare entrees as well as the chain's most popular items such as chicken fried steak.
Even with these offerings truckers may be a difficult group to convince. Time is money for truckers, whose mealtimes may be dictated by their hauling rather than their hunger.
Good eating patterns can be broken by truckers' schedules, stops, time of stopping, hours that they drive, turnaround time, sleeping time and the pressure to meet deadlines, said Hal Hylton, health and welfare specialist at the U.S. Department of Transportation.
"It's clear that they aren't the healthiest people," said Alison Fernandez, a health educator and registered nurse with Unocal. (They also may be some of the most conservative and religious, according to Fernandez, who added that surveys indicate they are generally Republican, "they all love Reagan" and "a lot of them are really bored.")
A 1988 Report to Congress prepared by DOT and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that truck and tractor drivers have excess rates of death from several diseases, including those of the respiratory system and various kinds of cancer. Compiled from a search of medical literature, the report found that commercial drivers also have higher incidences of digestive disorders, higher levels of cholesterol, triglycerides and blood pressure, "greater psychic pressure in the working situation" and more Type-A personalities. While the study concluded that many of these excesses may be due to the chemical and physical hazards to which drivers are exposed, it also cited personal habits of eating, smoking and drinking as probable contributors.
At health screenings conducted at Trucker Appreciation Month at the Unocal 76 Auto/TruckStops, according to Fernandez, of the truckers who volunteered to be tested, about a third had high blood pressure, half had blood cholesterol counts above recommended levels and most would be considered obese -- 20 percent or more over ideal weight.
What's more, said Fernandez, when she talked to individual truckers, she found it was not unusual for them to eat a three-egg omelet every day, for a total of 21 eggs a week. Some refused to have their cholesterol tested. "A lot knew it was bad, they just didn't want to know," she said.
That sounds like Roy Parcell, sitting in a truckers-only booth here, the juke box listings turned to "Addicted to Love" and his addiction to eggs apparent by the two over medium sitting on his plate with sausage. "They'll carry me down there -- that's how I'll get to the doctor," says Parcell, taking a break from hauling 20,000 pounds of lard from Williamsport to Abilene. "To me, if something's going to kill you, it's going to kill you."
Driver Pearlie Moore, sitting at the counter, wolfing down a platter of meatloaf, mashed potatoes and green beans, says his cholesterol is "way high," that he takes blood pressure medication and that he is a borderline diabetic. He never orders "lite" fare. "I should but I don't," he says apologetically.
"The professional driver is just like the rest of us," said Colman, of Petro Stopping Centers. "We know what we're supposed to do, but don't always take advantage of it."
Truck drivers, said Melvin Green, manager of the Unocal 76 Auto/TruckStop restaurant in Elkton, Md., "are funny people. If they had a heart attack three weeks ago, they may pay attention. But they soon forget."
Guiney is hoping that they won't forget. The impetus behind the Power Food menu came from Unocal surveys showing that at least a third of respondents were concerned about the kinds of food they eat on the road, he said. Close to 60 percent said they wanted to see a wider selection of diet-controlled foods. And like any company anxious for more market share, Unocal figured that anything that was good for the truckers could be good for its pocketbook.
Finally, the sight of overweight truckers really hit hard at a breakfast buffet one day, said Guiney. "I saw a trucker who must have weighed 325 pounds. On one half of his plate he put corned beef hash, on the other half he put scrambled eggs, then he covered it all with sausage gravy and buried sausage links in it. In 15 minutes, he was up again. I thought 'wow.' We have to do some education here."
So the Power Food menu was instituted in the chain's training program at the University of Houston's Conrad Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management, where truck stop managers and chefs are educated in the finer points of truck stop cookery. The entrees were taste-tested by a group of drivers, hauled in for an afternoon of griddled chicken and fish and given $75 for two hours work. (Guiney noted, "They're passing up the NFL game" on television.)
Ralph Albertazzie, franchise operator for the Unocal stop here in the eastern corner of West Virginia, believes his lighter fare menu doesn't sell that well because he caters to a transient trucker crowd rather than those who "pick up loads and sit around." They "want to grab something to sustain themselves," he said. Most of the health-oriented items are ordered by tourists and locals, he added. (It may also be because the items are listed as "Dieter's Delight," rather than "Power Food.")
Yet if they're not coming for Albertazzie's Eggbeater omelets, they might be coming to look at his mementos from his days as captain of Air Force One for former president Richard Nixon. "He had a lot of cottage cheese, but I never saw the ketchup," according to Albertazzie.
Across from the truck stop shop selling items ranging from "My Daddy is a Trucker" T-shirts to Long Haul blue jeans, is a glass-enclosed case filled with model airplanes, copies of the two books Albertazzie's co-authored, "Hostage One," and "The Flying White House: The Story of Air Force One," and photographs of Albertazzie with Richard and Pat Nixon and with Chuck Yeager. His office is a virtual military museum, filled from floor to ceiling with awards, framed magazine covers with stories about him (Aviation Week, People) and signed photographs (from the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds "with sincerest wishes.")
A truck stop "is nothing but an airport without the wings," says Albertazzie, a gregarious man with a dashing crop of white hair who says he has gained 20 pounds since running the truck stop. (After he retired as a colonel from transporting presidents and before he joined Unocal, Albertazzie ran an unsuccessful bid against Jay Rockefeller for governor of West Virginia.)
While the Martinsburg location sells a lot more 16-ounce T-bones and sausage gravy over hot biscuits than it does Eggbeater omelets, other franchise operations are having surprising success. In Wytheville, Va., the Power Food items are selling well, according to restaurant manager Ellis Hundley. "We get a lot of calls for it. A lot of them are looking for low cholesterol stuff," he said.
Ted Waskey, senior professor in food management and director of graduate studies at the Conrad Hilton school, who teaches Unocal students how to make Eggbeater omelets fluffy and how to saute' chicken breasts in a nonstick pan, said that in his classes restaurant managers have mentioned that they've gotten CB radio calls from truckers inquiring whether they offer Power Food items.
The meat-and-potatoes stereotype of truckers just isn't true, Waskey contends. "We have stereotypes of the three-martini lunch bunch," he said. "There is an awareness" about health and nutrition "in every socioeconomic level."
And there certainly is interest. Fernandez, Unocal's health educator, said that during Trucker Appreciation Month, where the truck stops display trucker supplies and services, that the health survey booth was the most popular. Pausing a moment, Fernandez concluded, "but it was probably because we asked them, 'How did you like the nurses?' "