IN these times of remote shopping and COVID "click and collect", John and Miriam Farrington don't have to go online to buy their fruit and vegetables. They just step out the front of their Warners Bay home, for the shop pulls up in their driveway.
"I don't like to go into big centres in this climate," said Mrs Farrington.
"We like to buy from small business, to support them," added her husband.
Tom Pandevski is the man behind this small business - and behind the steering wheel.
"It's a shop on wheels really," said Mr Pandevski, widely known as Tom the Fruito or simply Tommy.
Four days a week, Mr Pandevski drives his truck around the streets of northern Lake Macquarie, from Speers Point to Valentine, serving about 80 customers.
He's been in the fresh produce game since the mid 1980s, when he ran a fruit shop and deli in Warners Bay. After he retired, Mr Pandevski grew bored. So he returned to fruit and vegetables about a dozen years ago, only he decided to serve customers from the back of a truck, and take the produce directly to them.
"The shop was pressure; you've got staff, the rent has to be paid," he said, explaining why he preferred his mobile business.
"I do the area that I've grown up with, and the area of my customers from the shop."
Indeed, many of his customers have been with him since his fruit shop days. As a result, what Mr Pandevski aims to serve from the back of his truck are not just fruit and vegetables but a much rarer commodity - a sense of community.
"I've served three generations. I've watched kids grow up, leave home, get married, have kids, and now they're my customers," said Mr Pandevski.
"If you serve someone for 37 years, you've got to become friends."
And that's how it is with the Farringtons, who have bought from, and yarned with, Mr Pandevski since the fruit shop days, and they continue that ritual at their home each Thursday.
"I've had lunch with these guys, I've had cake and coffee with them," said Mr Pandevski.
"It adds a lot to our lives, to have Tom to talk with about something we love, which is fruit and vegetables" said John Farrington.
Although that is not the only topic of conversation.
"These two can't stop talking, always talking about the [Newcastle] Jets," said Mrs Farrington.
"It's a social experience," added her husband.
A social experience, at a time when opportunities for that have been greatly reduced by COVID restrictions, is what some of Tom Pandevski's customers appreciate.
On his run is an over-55s complex, Lymington Village. When he beeps his horn, from out of the villas flows a stream of masked residents, who sign the COVID registration book and start chatting to Mr Pandevski as they select their produce.
"I look forward to hearing 'Toot! Toot!' on a Thursday," said Sandy White. "It's a wonderful service, and he really spoils us.
"He's very civilised and good fun to talk to. It's humanising, having someone to talk to."
On any given day, Tom Pandevski said, he would serve only about 20 customers, because he spent up to half an hour with some, talking and listening.
"You're spending time with them, you never rush them," he said.
"Mushies around here?", asked another Lymington Village resident, Jeanette, as she surveyed the rows of produce - fruit on the left side of the truck, vegetables on the right.
"Yes, up the front," replied Mr Pandevski, pointing to the right.
As she selected the mushrooms, Jeanette explained she was a casual customer: "You don't run off to the supermarket these days."
"It's pretty important here," she said of the service, "because of the age of the residents, and they can get their fruit and vegetables."
Many preferred what Tom Pandevski had to offer.
"It's better than going to the supermarket," said resident Maree Fryer, as she bought fruit. "It's not in cold storage."
Each morning, Tom Pandevski goes to the Newcastle City Markets at Sandgate to source and buy the fruit and vegetables on display on the back of his truck.
"If you're going to call yourself a fresh fruit and vegetable seller, you have to be fresh," he said.
The Farringtons said they appreciated that their fruito could explain the origin of the food he sold, and he ensured it was fresh.
"Tom only gets what's in season, rather than getting it from a cool room, and it's almost all 100 per cent Australian produce," Miriam Farrington said, as she chose some "velvety, hand-picked" beans, to use the fruito's description.
Leisurely buying fruit and vegetables from a mobile salesman outside your own home, and all the while having a chat to him, sounds quaint, like something from yesteryear.
As John Farrington, joked, "I don't know where his horse and cart is."
"People say this is like the old-fashioned fruito, but I say, 'Hang on, I'm young!'," said 63-year-old Mr Pandevski.
But in the midst of a pandemic, what may have been seen as old-fashioned is very much in demand. People are cooking more at home, as they can't dine out. What's more, going out in the community is not only restricted, it's something many don't feel comfortable about.
"People really want to have a service to their homes, rather than venturing out and taking the risk," said John Farrington.
At the Sandgate markets, Derrick Moodley, from Hunter Fresh Garrett Wholesale, said the dominance of supermarket chains had almost consigned the small-time fruito to history.
He estimated that the number of small fruit and vegetable shops in the area had shrunk in the past couple of decades from about 680 to less than 20. And the local mobile fruito, who was once a common sight on suburban streets, amounted to only a handful these days.
But with the imposition of COVID, and the restrictions in place, people had become aware of what they had lost.
"The biggest difference we've found is that people are ringing up and looking for their fruito, and he's not there anymore," said Mr Moodley. "But now they need him. Now they don't want to go to the chains."
Tom Pandevski said he had picked up customers during the pandemic, as neighbours and friends of existing clients sought him out.
"But in reality, I don't want any more business," he added. "I want to support the customers who have supported me all this time properly.
"I want to spend time with them. It's just a personal thing."
Tom Pandevski said the majority of his customers were still working, and they would sometimes just leave an order form and basket out for him. He would fill that order and leave a note regarding how much he was owed.
"And you know what?," he said. "That's another thing I love. Never, ever has a customer cheated me."
At the moment, many of his customers are working from home. One is Paul Moen, who is an IT specialist.
"What are we talking about today? Football?," asked Mr Moen.
As he placed his order, Mr Moen said, "The quality is the goal that I like."
Paul Moen meant the quality of the produce, not the conversation. Although that was pretty good as well apparently.
"We talk about everything," said Mr Moen.
"We fix all of the country's problems!," asserted Mr Pandevski.
Wholesaler Derrick Moodley hoped once restrictions eased and people returned to something like their pre-pandemic way of life, they continued to realise the value of having a local fruit and vegetable seller.
"The younger generation seem to have a lot more time and support for their local industries," Mr Moodley said.
Tom Pandevski shared the hope that as a result of the changes brought about by COVID, more people would support their local fruito.
"It's my wish, and I really, really hope that they do," he said.
"When I get a young customer, I'm really excited."
And, as he made clear while doing his run, Tom Pandevski appreciated his long-standing customers.
After weighing the Farringtons' selection of fruit and vegetables on the scales hanging from the back of his truck, Mr Pandevski noted the bill came to $46.50. He charged them $45.
It all evened out, he said; sometimes, customers rounded up their bills.
Anyway, for Tom Pandevski, it's not about the money. Even during a pandemic - especially during a pandemic - the true fruits of his labour, in his eyes, are the connections with his customers.
"I do it because I've grown up with them, and they are my family," Mr Pandevski said.
"I do it because I just love my job."
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