Food Trucks might be ready for another “moment” in Huntsville. Four or five years ago, it was difficult to find a hotter local culinary trend than these mobile vendors, selling everything from street tacos to creative sandwiches. Development nonprofit Downtown Huntsville Inc.'s festival-like rallies played a huge role in food truck’s growth here. The rallies quickly became must-dos, attracting thousands. The last couple years tough that buzz cooled a bit. But that’s the very nature of most trends, food or otherwise. Call it cultural gravity.
But during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, as people cautiously ease back into public activities, food trucks seem conceptually custom built for this. “Food trucks are nimble and mobile and, by their very nature, outdoor-focused,” says Chad Emerson, DHI’s CEO. “We believe they can be a great way to re-introduce guests to public dining in a socially-distant outdoor setting.”
On June 5, DHI is holding a “Socially Distant Food Truck All Stars” event, from 5 - 9 p.m. The 12 participating vendors will be stationed across downtown. Scheduled vendors include 1. Fast Frankies Wicked Eats, Grumpy’s, Hippea Camper, Southerland Sno Depot, Manic Organic, Nanny’s Old Fashioned Lemonade, What’s Popp’N, Ice Works, Pearl, Beast Mode, Fire & Spice, Golden Years Ice Cream Parlor, Badd Newz BBQ, I Love Bacon, Rollin Lobstah, Betty Jo’s Gourmet Food Truck, Piper and Leaf, Nothing Bundt Cakes, Suzy’s Pops and Regale Cupcakery. The food trucks will be stationed between Clinton and Williams avenues, and from East Side Square to Monroe Street.
"By spacing throughout downtown," Emerson says, "rather than condensed on a single block of Church Street, we'll be able to avoid the different lines for the different trucks crossing and intersecting each other. This format will also allow more space for those waiting for their food after ordering."
DHI is requiring food truck operators to wear face masks when interacting with the public. The organization is working vendors to identify the now ubiquitous six-foot socially distanced spacing for the lines and waiting areas. Guests are encouraged to wear masks while waiting in line.
In plotting food trucks' return downtown, DHI worked closely with the City of Huntsville to develop a configuration. A second socially distant food truck even is planned for June 19. After that DHI will re-evaluate before going forward, with the goal of hosting one food truck event through fall.
In addition to safety, Emerson sees potential in the event's interspersed layout. "We hope guests approach this like a 'progressive dinner,'" Emerson says. "Start at one end of downtown and try different dishes from different (food trucks) as you stroll through the beautiful park and streets in downtown, with a cup of coffee or your favorite purple cup beverage (plastic containers approved for public consumption of alcohol from approved vendors). Rather than a stationary experience, we hope this becomes a moving 'food walk' set-up."
Keith Hill is co-owner of I Love Bacon food truck. During coronavirus, I Love Bacon pivoted from centrally-located events to neighborhood happenings. "That helped us get by," Hill says. "For us, things are starting to normalize."
During the pandemic, Hill says I Love Bacon customers have been well aware of social distancing during service. The food truck has switched to a no-touch check out. They tried online ordering too. But after that proved chaotic and unrhythmic, they ultimately discontinued online ordering because it wasn't an effective customer experience. For a pandemic-era dining out experience, Hill feels food trucks are a best case scenario. "You have room to have as much space as you like, single use utensils, and the speed to deliver faster than anyone."
I Love Bacon's sandwich menu boasts proteins including brisket, short ribs, chicken, flank steak and of course bacon. The food truck plans on debuting a long in the works cheeseburger at Friday's Huntsville event.
Hill says DHI food truck events feel like home for I Love Bacon. "It’s had a huge impact on our brand overall, especially as far as brand recognition," Hill says. "The early popularity of the downtown events really helped solidify the menus and service we’re known for. DHI and Chad helped us grow up really and become a legitimate business."
Ever since the pandemic intensified in March, shutting down many local businesses, DHI has been an asset for small business owners. Everything from giving timely updates to local entrepreneurs via conference calls to posting blogs providing the public with the latest operational changes so they could patronize go-to local businesses.
After a week of unsettling protest fallout downtown, including police gassing crowds and firing rubber bullets, Huntsville could use a night of normalcy. As of publishing of this story, Friday's food truck event is proceeding as planned, says DHI communications director Autumn Nelson. "We are keeping in contact with HPD (Huntsville Police Department) to monitor any permitted or non-permitted protests," Nelson says, "and as of right now, there is no indication that there will be one tomorrow night. If that changes though, we will reevaluate."
Hill admits “the new” eventually evaporated from Huntsville food truck events. “But all the food trucks are here with our systems polished up and offering the best customer service we ever have,” Hill says. “I hope folks just fall in love with the vibe all over again. It really is one of the best events to ever exist in Huntsville.”
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