Jenkins put $40,000 of savings into turning an old food truck into an itinerant soul food station serving gumbo, catfish poboys and blackened alligator.
With that, PoBoy’s & Rich Chic’s Cajun Kitchen was born.
Up and running in April, the yellow and pink food truck quickly became popular around Odessa.
Jenkins and his wife were liberals in the conservative city of 110,000, but politics didn’t seem to get in the way of business. PoBoy’s & Rich Chic’s was popular. The couple even got along with their competitors, helping to push Odessa to pass reforms making business easier for food trucks.
But then a white supremacist shot up a black church on the other side of the country and things got weird.
Dylann Roof’s assault on Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church claimed the lives of nine African Americans and set off a fierce national debate about racism and the Confederate flag.
Many stores took the flags off their shelves. Some offered exchanges. NASCAR told patrons that they could trade in Confederate flags for Stars and Stripes in honor of the Fourth of July.
Jenkins made his own offer. He told customers that they could trade in Confederate items for free meals.
Then he made an even bolder promise: He’d toss the Confederate items together and torch them.
The comedian’s gesture was no joke. But neither was the response.
“We got a lot of backlash,” Jenkins told The Washington Post. “So we decided to do something more constructive.”
Jenkins announced that rather than burn the items he had received — some Confederate money and a book containing Confederate soldiers’ stories — he would donate them to a museum in Dallas.
But his change of heart hardly helped.
“We got a lot of hate mail with a lot of people saying ‘Burn the truck down,'” Jenkins said.
“Maybe could have the Scimitars and Cossacks pay you a visit you sniveling snake,” one person with a Confederate flag profile picture wrote on PoBoy’s Facebook page, referencing two biker groups accused of ties to white supremacists (members of both gangs were involved in the deadly Waco shootout on May 17.)
“Why don’t all these ‘I’m offended’ people just get into that truck and well light it on fire,” another wrote. “Problem solved.”
Now it appears as if that’s exactly what someone has done.
On Wednesday morning at around 1 a.m., Jenkins’s beloved food truck burst into flames as it sat on the street outside his brother’s house.
“My brother called me in the middle of the night and said ‘Hey, you need to get here as fast as you can. The truck is on fire,'” Jenkins said.
Problem not solved. Problem very not solved.
“It was scary,” Jenkins said. “We lost everything.”
“My first thought was: ‘Who could have done this?'”
Jenkins believes someone burned down his truck, just as they had promised. Authorities, however, are unconvinced.
“The fire marshal said it was started in the engine and he ruled out arson because we had locked the doors on the truck,” Jenkins said. He admitted that there was a gas can for his generator inside the truck in the area where the fire started, but said there is no reason why it would burst into flames, especially in the middle of the night hours after anyone was in the vehicle.
“It’s really odd to me that at 1 a.m. in the morning a fire would start in a parked truck,” he said. “And it’s really odd for a fire like that to happen mysteriously the way that we had been threatened.”
“To me it is just very suspicious that something like that would happen exactly how the threats were made,” Jenkins added.
The day after the fire, Jenkins was “pretty beat,” he said. Making matters worse was the fact that the Internet trolls were back. Although no one claimed to have set the fire — “I don’t think they’re that stupid,” Jenkins said — some critics claimed he set the fire himself to claim the insurance.
“A lot of people say ‘Oh they are doing it for insurance.’ Well we don’t have any,” Jenkins said. “I bought that truck in cash and I had to borrow money from a friend.”
He explained that he only paid $80 per month for liability coverage because he couldn’t afford $600 per month for full coverage.
“Foolishly and regrettably we didn’t choose that,” he added. “We have to start all over again from scratch.”
Or maybe not.
Whether or not Odessans were turned off by Jenkins’s political statement, they have come together to help him in the days since.
Kimberley Vandiver, the owner of a rival food truck called Midnight Munchies, started a GoFundMe page for Jenkins. As of Friday morning, it had raked in $7,406. Other competitors have helped Jenkins and his wife salvage appliances from their ruined truck.
Even better, Jenkins said he has been sold a new truck for next to nothing by a local pastor.
“I’m not religious but people keep telling me that they are saying prayers for us,” he said. “That’s pretty much what has brought my spirits up.”
Lots of work remains before PoBoy’s & Rich Chic’s Cajun Kitchen rises from the ashes, however. The new truck is basically a shuttle bus and will have to be converted into a food truck, Jenkins said.
He’s grateful for the outpouring of support, but the comedian refuses to apologize for taking a stand in the first place.
“I feel sorry for business owners who are scared to speak out about their personal opinions for fear of losing business,” he said. “Free speech is extremely important.”
Nor will he stop from throwing barbed comments towards bigots.
“To me it’s funny that the same people who say it’s about heritage are the first people to say hateful things,” he said in reference to the Confederate flag controversy.
Perhaps “funny” isn’t the right word.