When Vonda Patterson started bringing her Rollin Lobstah Food Truck to downtown Huntsville’s monthly street food gatherings in 2014, the events were only a few months old. However, sponsored by the award-winning Downtown Huntsville Inc., the food truck rallies already were attracting large crowds to Big Spring Park to sample the fare and enjoy live music and games.
The modern food truck movement, characterized by restaurant favorites served out of roaming vehicles, is generally believed to have started in 2008 in Los Angeles. It took a few years for the trend to take hold in the Deep South, but many Huntsvillians credit Downtown Huntsville Inc. (DHI) with spurring the city’s thriving food truck scene.
“The Huntsville crowds had been waiting for food trucks to come to town, ” Patterson says. “Downtown Huntsville Inc. helped bring many of us to one location and involved food trucks in just about every event they sponsored downtown. That brought positive feedback to the trucks and huge crowds to our window.”
On a normal Friday night food truck rally, Patterson’s food truck served at least 250 to 300 people, many of them clamoring for her Connecticut roll, “warm fresh lobster tossed in melted butter on a toasted buttery bun sprinkled with special seasoning, ” she says. “The rallies have had a huge positive impact on our business.”
Drawing between 2, 000 and 3, 000 attendees each event, Huntsville’s downtown street food gatherings have not only boosted business for a number of local food truck entrepreneurs but also boosted foot traffic and helped revive nightlife in a thriving city center.
“I think they have been so successful because the events fill a demand for a bustling, positive, community atmosphere in an urban setting, ” says Ellery Miller, director of communications and special events at Downtown Huntsville Inc. “It also helps that the events are free. You can go enjoy the atmosphere at any cost level, and they are 100 percent inclusive.”
ABOVE Tim Faul and Donna Long at Tim's Cajun Kitchen
Changing the Model
After a few years of successful food truck gatherings, DHI rebranded the events as the “Battle of the Food Truck All Stars.” Rather than accepting any food truck vendor that was willing to pay the participation fee, DHI asked food vendors to compete for a number of available slots, effectively cutting in half the number of vendors.
“We wanted to focus on quality over quantity, ” Miller says. Ten food trucks were juried in as “all stars.” The public voted online to select another three favorite food trucks, resulting in 13 trucks to participate in the 2017 season. In addition, 10 food tents joined the events to supplement with drinks, desserts and other items.
Not only did the 2017 events include a select group of food trucks, but Huntsville residents had twice as many opportunities to sample their delicacies. DHI continued to produce the usual Church Street event on the third Friday of each month. The organization also added another date each month that varied in time and location. For instance, the food trucks might be open at Campus 805 on a Thursday night or on the downtown square on a Saturday morning.
In November, DHI hosted a Food Truck Awards and Tasting, announcing awards for the Food Truck of the Year and the Food Truck Menu Item of the Year. Beast Mode’s Cuban burger took the award for the menu item of the year and I Love Bacon and Beast Mode tied for the best food truck of the year.
While some of the events rotated each month, there was always a crowd of hungry attendees ready to sample food truck fare.
“DHI does a good job advertising and marketing their events, ” says Heather Thompson of Manic Organic Food Truck, which was selected as an All Star. “DHI events have plenty of notice, lots of details and a variety of activities at any given food truck rally. I think the people of Huntsville have come to find DHI events to be good events to participate in.”
ABOVE Tyler Lane at I Love Bacon, which tied for top honors
Reaping the Results
The food truck gatherings have been transformative for many of the participating vendors, such as Fire & Spice, which opened a brick-and-mortar location in August 2017 after joining the food truck events in 2015.
“Once you start making a name for yourself as a truck, your fan base grows and you have to really pay attention to what they want, ” says LeAndra Poux, who co-owns the truck and restaurant with her husband, Thomas. “We were able to test out certain recipes and get feedback instantly at these events. This helped us mold into what we are today, and without these events, we wouldn’t have been able to grow our business so quickly and open our restaurant. We are very grateful to continue to be a part of these.”
For local residents and visitors who come to the food truck events, one of the highlights of the outings is, obviously, the food, much of which can’t be sampled anywhere else. For instance, at Beast Mode, Executive Chef Sebastien Maris prepares French-Mediterranean cuisine to go. I Love Bacon offers tasty twists on classic sandwiches, such as grilled cheese, BLT and Cuban — all with, of course, bacon.
“Years ago, when you thought of a truck that served food, you thought of either a fair or carnival, a flea market or ice cream truck, ” says Pamela Maris, who co-owns Beast Mode with her husband, Chef Sebastien Maris.
“We now have true culinary geniuses taking their food to the streets.” For instance, her husband is an Executive French Chef from Carcassonne, France, a five-star Michelin Chef who has always worked in fine dining settings until launching their business in September 2016 “to bring culinary renaissance to the streets with modern, complex flavors and sophisticated cuisine mixed with generations old traditions, ” she says. “We enjoy combining fine dining flavors into our gourmet burgers, sandwiches and crepes.”
Manic Organic, which just opened in 2016, makes all its ingredients from scratch, including ketchup, mayonnaise and salsa. Some of its top-selling menu items include the burger, Santa Fe chicken tacos and chipotle chicken wrap. “Our truck attracts people who want freshly made food but also those who have allergies and intolerances and are limited with other options, ” Thompson says. “I also think people try our food and realize they had a preconceived idea of what organic tastes like, and our food is something they want to keep coming back for.”
In addition to the food, people keep coming back to Huntsville food truck events for the atmosphere. And that regular foot traffic is good for all businesses downtown. “Before, during and after the Battle of the Food Truck All Stars, it is common for attendees to walk through Big Spring Park, grab a drink at Keegan’s, Pane E Vino or Humphrey’s, rent a bike from the bike share to explore downtown and go out with their friends afterwards, ” DHI’s Miller says. “When we move the events onto the Square or to the Lumberyard, businesses nearby experience higher sales as well, so we see that the events stimulate economic activity, rather than compete for it.”
And there’s no better place than downtown Huntsville to offer these events, says DHI President and CEO Chad Emerson, as the downtown entertainment district is open from 12 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. The food truck events have been a win for the food vendors, the community and other downtown businesses.
In 2018, DHI plans to continue offering its food truck events on the third Friday night of each month, as well as announcing additional food truck appearances each month.
The All Star Cast
Food truck vendors that participated in the Battle of the Food Truck All Stars during 2017 included:
- Back Alley Traveling Bistro
- Badd Newz BBQ
- Beast Mode
- Earth and Stone Wood Fired Pizza
- Fire & Spice
- Grumpy’s Restaurant
- I Love Bacon Inc.
- Manic Organic Food Truck
- Pearl: Asian Cuisine
- Rollin Lobstah
- Southerland Sno Depot
- Tim’s Cajun Kitchen
- Washington Square Catering
Nancy Mann Jackson and Tyler Brown are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Huntsville.
Text By NANCY MANN JACKSON // Photos by TYLER BROWN