Local food truck serves up drive-in theater experience

The smell of BBQ greeted dozens of people who were at a theater for the first time in weeks.

On Saturday, May 23, Smoke Crafters, a Mission-based BBQ food truck, welcomed people to a drive-in experience as they screened the animated blockbuster “Toy Story 4” in a makeshift drive-in theater on their property, located on Highway 107 and Shary Road.

“This option gives families something to do and gets them out of the house while staying safe,” Jaime Elizondo, who co-owns Smoke Crafters with his wife, Maria said. “Everyone is scared and nervous about getting out of the house, but they want to do something with their kids without putting them at risk or jeopardy. This way, it’s a forced evolution where small businesses like ours will have to adapt and figure out new things to stay in operation and offer something for the people.”

Smoke Crafters started out as a catering company in 2008 before Elizondo and his wife opened the food truck for businesses last year. 

The business, which is only opened on Saturdays to accommodate the busy schedule of the Elizondos, had been closed since March due to the COVID-19 pandemic that closed several restaurants to discourage social gatherings.

“We were actually working as vendors at the Mercedes Livestock Show which ended up getting cancelled because of the pandemic,” Elizondo recalled. “We were devastated, we had put a lot of work into it and were worried about what we were going to do to survive.”

With state Gov. Greg Abbott’s gradual rollout of the reopening of the state, Smoke Crafters opened to the public May 16, leading Elizondo to brainstorm ideas to draw a crowd.

“When we opened last year, we held a movie screening with the help of a friend who owns a production company that screens the ‘Movies in the Park’ events in Weslaco and Progresso,” Elizondo said. “Now that the pandemic hit, we decided to revisit it. We have a lot of property next door and knew that people would feel safe in their cars and it seemed fun. The company has licenses to show movies so we are able to show things publicly and we knew we didn’t have to charge audiences wanting to attend, we’re doing it for them.”

The screening provided a rare opportunity for residents to watch a movie as theaters across the nation closed their doors since last March. Several theater chains, including Cinemark and AMC which has locations throughout the Valley, announced they won’t reopen until late July.

This leaves the independently owned WesMer Drive-In theater in Mercedes as the only theater open in the Rio Grande Valley.  Due to all major studios delaying the release of their movies through later this summer, WesMer is screening older titles, something smoke Crafter will also be doing.

The screening last week saw 50 vehicles park in front of a 10-foot screen provided by Dice Productions who also lent a radio transmitter to Smoke Crafters so audiences can tune in to their car radio to listen to the movie, just like they would at a drive-in theater.

To promote social distancing, the six Smoke Crafters staff members wore face shields and gloves and encouraged people to order food on the Smoke Crafters’ website so staff members could deliver the food to customers.

Even though the menu included scrumptious items such as brisket nachos, burgers, a giant chocolate chip cookie and alcohol from the food truck’s beer garden, attendees weren’t required to order from the establishment as the admission to the screening was free.

“This is our first time doing this event so we will see how it goes and hopefully everyone loves it,” Elizondo said before showtime. “We want audiences to be able to connect with their families during a pandemic in a different way. A lot of kids haven’t been in a drive-in theater and this will be a new experience for them while they’re out of the house; we want people to have fun.”

For many families in attendance, the makeshift drive-in was the first time they left the house as part of an outdoor social gathering.

“It seemed like something fun to do on a Saturday night,” Gilbert Garza, a resident from Pharr at the screening said. “I myself am a small business owner so I know why it’s important to support businesses like Smoke Crafters and I wanted to do something with the kids.”

Garza said he and his two kids, Dillon and Hayley, have participated in a variety of activities together to pass the time from playing board games, making crafts and doing schoolwork since social distancing has been enforced for the last several weeks.

“We just recently started going to the park and now this is the first time in months we do something social, it feels awesome,” Garza said, adding that he supports businesses reopening as long as they practice safety measures. “You have to be creative and think outside the box to survive. It’s tough right now for businesses with people cautious about going out so it’s heartening to see people out here and practicing social distancing and other precautions as they enjoy a movie.”

For Edinburg parents America and Sergio Martinez, the screening of “Toy Story 4” motivated them to attend the event. Both described themselves as fans of the series and wore “Pizza Planet” t-shirts at the event.

“I even brought Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head with me,” the Martinez’s 6-year-old daughter, Nayeli, shouted from the backseat of the car as she held dolls of the eponymous Toy Story characters.

According to America, until recently she and her family have left the house only for work and to make quick trips to the grocery store.

“We’ve been stuck indoors for what feels like forever and we can’t go anywhere with our daughter unless we know it’s safe,” America said. “We wanted a little entertainment and distraction, and this looked like something we could take Nayeli to.”

The experience, Elizondo said, reminded him of regularly going to the WesMer Drive-In theater in Weslaco.

“I went there a lot as a kid, it was always fun and I can remember really only paying attention to the movie on like two occasions because I was busy mainly enjoying the great environment with family and friends,” Elizondo said. “I hope families get that here.

Smoke Crafters will host a second outdoor screening Saturday, June 6 at 8 p.m. with a movie that will be announced on their Facebook page soon.

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