Smoothie Operator

One hundred and seventy-five. That’s how many smoothies—orange creamsicle, triple berry, and strawberry kiwi—that Gary Bertelsen is making on a rainy Friday morning in his Ben and Jerry’s store on Coburg Road in Eugene, with country music blaring, his cousin, Julie Golf, assisting, three high-tech blenders whirring, and his cell phone ringing intermittently in the background. The shop is not open yet—it’s only 9:00 a.m. The cacophony is deafening, kind of like the sound in Autzen Stadium after a touchdown. Pour, whirr, pour. Approximately ninety bananas, twelve-and-a-half gallons of frozen yogurt, about twenty-two gallons of juice, and thirty pounds of berries—combining to make more than sixty gallons of fruity goodness.

Across town, 120 UO football players are blocking, tackling, passing, running, sweating, and burning up vital nutrients and a zillion calories—in other words, it’s a routine practice the day before a game (in this case, the early-season contest with Portland State). The smoothies are for the team, part of an overall nutrition program developed by James Harris, assistant athletic director and chief nutritionist for the UO athletic department. Bertelsen has also served smoothies to the UO women’s volleyball, soccer, and softball teams, as well as men’s lacrosse during the past five years.

“After a workout, you’re exhausted. You’ve used up all your energy. You’re breaking down muscle mass. On the Friday before the game, you’ve got to replenish that,” Harris explains. The smoothies, he says, are part of the pregame plan. “It helps with recovery. There’s simple sugar and fruit juice. There’s protein, which helps to repair muscles. And it tastes incredible. The coaches love them. The players love them.”

To be clear, there’s nothing in the smoothies that isn’t in what’s sold at Ben and Jerry’s every day. No supplements, protein powder, or the like. Says Harris, “The only thing he could add per NCAA rules would be protein, but there is a calculation to determine the permissible amount.”

Bertelsen lines the smoothies up in rows, snaps plastic lids on the 175 twenty-two-ounce cups, and adds a straw for each. He moves the finished product onto shelves in his walk-in freezer. There they will sit for the next hour or so, until he gets the call that practice is wrapping up. “Not bad,” he says, checking his watch. That took exactly fifty minutes. He cleans up the sticky counters and he waits.

He uses the time to work the phones, taking care of details. One challenge: his crew is spread really thin, at venues literally hundreds of miles apart. He operates an ice cream booth at the Cuthbert Amphitheater in Eugene and he’s short a couple staff members for tonight’s show, Furthur with Bob Weir and Phil Lesh from The Grateful Dead. Many of Bertelsen’s employees who would usually be on hand to fill in are still at the Pendleton Round-Up. He and his wife, Megan Bertelsen ’92, just returned from a week at Cycle Oregon, a bicycle tour that begins and ends in Elgin, Oregon, with stops in Enterprise; Clarkston, Washington; Waitsburg, Washington; and Pendleton. Gary and Megan participated, but not on bikes—they scooped ice cream and served the hungry pedalers 800 smoothies a day. After a five-hour drive back to Eugene, Gary went directly to scoop ice cream at the Cuthbert Amphitheater, and he’ll be there again tonight.

He’s everywhere—as ubiquitous as the Bertelsen name is in Eugene. His parents, lifelong Eugene residents, own several campus properties. His great-grandfather, Hans Bertelsen, was an early settler (fittingly, a dairy farmer). Bertelsen Road is in fact named after his family, most of them Duck fans (though perhaps none so dedicated as his father, Roger, who just attended his 250th straight game at Autzen Stadium). Gary, who like Megan is a South Eugene High School graduate, is regularly seen at local outdoor events with his Ben and Jerry’s mobile operation, a complement to the two stores in Eugene he’s owned since 2000. Before that, as anyone who attended the UO in this period may remember, he and his family owned the popular Bubba’s restaurant for seventeen years, with two locations, on Alder Street and on East 19th Avenue. He’s the smiling guy who was almost always there behind the counter—but he gave that up in 2001. “You had to be married to it. I was having kids,” he says. “I didn’t want to work that hard.”

He’s a devoted dad—somewhere in the midst of running two Ben and Jerry’s stores (he sold his third store, in Bend, about a year ago), scooping ice cream for fair- and concertgoers, and making smoothies for five UO athletic teams, he finds time to share after-school pickup duties with Megan.

Family time, especially in summers, is often taking smoothies to the teams, pre- or postgame. “It’s a great way to get the whole family together,” says Megan, for whom smoothies are a bit of a departure from her career as a physical therapist with Sacred Heart’s Orthopedic Sports and Spine Therapy in Eugene. “We’ve had a good time with it.” And the smoothie gig supplies the family with plenty of shared moments and memories. “One lacrosse game, it started snowing,” Megan remembers. “And there we were waiting to hand out smoothies.”

To the family, he’s Dad, but around the UO athletic department, he’s “that smoothie guy.” As in, “where’s that smoothie guy?” which is what one of the equipment managers asks shortly before practice ends. Gary’s there, having filled three large Igloo ice chests with smoothies and ice and hefted them into the back of his dark blue Dodge pickup. He takes a prime spot near the Moshofsky Center, wheels the coolers in on a hand truck, and then runs back to grab a folding table. The smoothies stay in their coolers while he waits right outside the tunnel. Practice is running late, and he wants them to stay frozen. He waits patiently, waving or saying hello to just about everyone who comes by.

Then it’s show time.

A steady stream of football players, coaches, and other staff members emerge from Autzen, walk by the table, and grab a frozen treat. “Wait till you see them,” Bertelsen says. “On TV they all look so big. But they’re just young guys.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Hey! My favorite part of the week, right there. Thanks, man.”

“What’s good? Ok, thanks. Thank you, sir!”

There are only a few variations on this theme—a couple fist bumps, a couple thumbs up—but despite a grueling practice in the rain, every last player seems to be smiling.

And, Gary’s comments aside, some of the team members are just as big, if not bigger, than they appear on TV. Senior Jordan Holmes, a 6-foot 5-inch, 300-pound offensive lineman for the Ducks, for example. He’s tried all the flavors. Today it’s orange creamsicle, his favorite. Holmes loves the smoothies because they’re cold and he knows they’re good for him. “They’re refreshing, and pretty much delicious,” he says.

Coach Chip Kelly is among the last coming out of Autzen, after supervising end-of-practice drills. Only a few lonely smoothies remain, melting in their cups and leaving rings of condensation on the table. Bertelsen reaches into the cooler and hands the coach his very own, still frozen—triple berry with a green straw, as always. Coach Kelly takes the smoothie, thanks Bertelsen, and heads over to talk with a group of reporters standing by.

When asked how many smoothies he’s made for UO athletic teams in total, Gary laughs—there’s no way he could count, he says.

—By Zanne Miller, MS ’97