Alone in the woods last September with suicidal thoughts racing through his mind, 31-year-old Joseph Gonzalez heard his mobile phone ding.
It was a text from a friend reaching out for help with a personal problem.
Momentarily distracted from his crushing mental pain, Gonzalez had a flash of insight: Maybe the only way to help himself out of his deep depression was to busy his mind helping other people.
"All of a sudden, I turned all my attention toward making (my friend) feel better," he said. "I realized: 'Oh no, what am I doing (considering suicide)? I need to be here for people.' That's when I ran back to the car.
"... This is my therapy, bringing awareness to people about mental health," he said.
Earlier this year, Gonzalez, a culinary school-trained pastry chef, quit his job as a bakery manager for a large national supermarket chain here and cashed in some company stock to buy a food truck.
His food-truck business, Broken Heart Cheesecakes, is a way for him to earn a living while raising awareness about depression. The cheesecake slices have names such as "Don't Hide in Your Shell" and "The Key to Happiness." Meanwhile, his truck is a canvas for QR codes and hotline numbers that offer help to people in crisis. A slogan painted on the truck says, "Fighting against depression one slice at a time."
There is often a buzz in the Broken Heart Cheesecakes line as new customers try to make sense of the menu items and mental health references on the truck. That's exactly what Gonzalez was hoping for — to meet people where they are and to provoke spontaneous conversations.
Almost everywhere he takes the Broken Heart food truck, it becomes a conversation starter for people to talk openly about their own mental health struggles or the loss of a friend or family member to suicide. Some have even said the truck has served as a "sign" to them to stop — or at least, pause — leaning into self-harm or remaining stuck in grief.
Ten percent of Gonzalez's profits go to mental health charities such as the Jason Flatt Foundation, which advocates for school teachers to be trained each year in youth suicide awareness. For Memorial Day week Gonzalez shared profits with an agency that helps military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Movie-star handsome, Gonzalez's customers often think his business is named Broken Heart Cheesecakes because he breaks hearts. He flashes a bashful smile and tells them, "No," that's not it.
Gonzalez said his first episode of suicidal thoughts happened when he was 18 years old, and he has battled depression on and off ever since. He says he considers himself a "never-give-up" kind of person, which makes his episodic thoughts of self-harm seem so irrational to him, almost like an out-of-body experience.
His diagnosis, stress-induced bi-polar disorder, prompted him to look for a new line of work. His old job at the supermarket bakery sometimes demanded 50 or more hours per week.
The idea of a food truck circled back to his childhood. The Bronx, New York, native remembers watching cooking shows on TV when he was little and cooking at home with his mother and father. He knew by age 9, he says, that he wanted to bake for a living.
"Cooking for me came really easy," Gonzalez said in an interview. "It was baking that I was (most) interested in because there's such a science to it. Temperature and humidity and things like that played a factor and spiked my interest."
When he hit on the idea of a food truck, Gonzalez said he wanted a niche that played to his strength as a pastry chef, while appealing to customers year around. Plus, cheesecake is a comfort food that fits with the message of his business, Gonzalez says.
So far, he has traveled to festivals and fairs in the region and also has a couple of permanent stops. For example, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on the first and third Friday of each month, he sets up at the Kitchen Incubator of Chattanooga, a resource for food start-up businesses near Eastgate Center at 5704 Marlin Road.
Gonzalez says he has been in business for only a couple of months but continues to grow his customer base. Many of his customers identify with his mental health advocacy and want to support the business, he said.
"Growing up in a household that's Hispanic and Italian, for men, it was really hard to come out and tell your emotions," Gonzalez said. "I wanted to normalize people coming out and talking.
"The biggest thing is admitting you are depressed, talking to a therapist, talking to a family member. That helps release it out of your mind," he said.
Gonzalez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.