In 2005, Jennifer South fulfilled a longtime dream by opening a small coffee and sandwich shop. Located in downtown Piedmont in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, Solid Rock Café was a sleepy establishment for a sleepy town. The food offerings were basic — pastries, chicken salad sandwiches, ice cream — and the customer traffic was modest. South and her mother usually could handle the crowds on their own. During lunch, they might occasionally bring in a third person to help out for a few hours.
Then in 2007, the state of Alabama’s first rails-to-trails project was completed, converting an old railroad line into a recreational biking and hiking trail. The 33-mile Chief Ladiga Trail stretched from Anniston to the Georgia state line, where it connected with the Silver Comet Trail and continued on to just outside of Atlanta. This created a 90-mile corridor that happened to pass less than two blocks from Solid Rock Café.
South didn’t think much about the town’s new addition at first. But over the next few years, she noticed a slow but steady increase of cyclists visiting her café. Breakfast became the busiest time of the day, as the cyclists stopped by to fuel up on muffins and smoothies in preparation for the ride ahead. In response to this increase in business, South began to add employees and expand her menu options.
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“About five years ago, I really started noticing that the trail was becoming a lot more popular and more people were coming in, ” South says. “We’re not near the interstate or in a high-traffic area. There wasn’t much of a reason for people to come to downtown Piedmont. But with the trail, we had a whole new group of people to pull our business from. It has become a great benefit to us. As the trail has picked up and become more popular, it’s definitely affected our business.”
One of the cyclists who stopped by Solid Rock was Greg South. He and Jennifer hit it off, and before long they were married and he quit his job as a long-haul truck driver to help Jennifer run the café. One of the first things they decided to do was make the place even more appealing to bike riders.
“We started trying to gear toward having things here specifically because the cyclists wanted them, ” Jennifer says. “I’d hear them talking about the different things they wished they could find in Piedmont, and so we tried to provide some of those things.”
The Souths expanded Solid Rock into the space next door and hired several more employees, and their establishment now operates as a full-service restaurant that is open for dinner and Sunday brunch. A bar has been added, complete with a selection of craft beers on tap. Solid Rock also now offers bike rentals, and there is even a small bedroom and shower upstairs for cyclists who want to stay overnight before continuing their ride.
“We’ve turned this into kind of a one-stop shop. You can rent a bike, have food and spend the night, ” Jennifer says. “For many years I had cyclists come in who were looking for someplace to stay the night, and there just isn’t anything close by. So we put in several thousand dollars of plumbing upstairs with a nice big shower.
“We’ve made this place a destination for cyclists. There are people coming in from all over the United States to ride this trail, and they’re telling other people about it. That’s huge for us. From spring to fall when the weather is nice, probably close to half our customers are cyclists.”
Lee Sentell, director of the Alabama Tourism Department, says Solid Rock Café is a good example of how a trail system can be beneficial to smaller towns that simply don’t have any other type of tourism attractions.
“It’s much easier to promote urban destinations, because they have the infrastructure — the restaurants, the hotels — and everything is easy to get to, ” Sentell says. “In rural areas, nature-based tourism is basically what they have. So we love to see these types of trails. That’s the best way to maximize the economic return for some of these rural areas.”
Jennifer South certainly has seen an economic return from the creation of the Chief Ladiga Trail. Now she wants the town of Piedmont to follow the lead of Solid Rock Café and begin actively pursuing the cycling tourism market.
“I don’t think Piedmont has tapped into the full potential of the trail yet, ” South says. “There are a lot more things that could be done to benefit from the people who are coming by on the trail. The cyclists want to stop and stay at places along the way, but there have to be shops and things for them to do. A lot of the people who ride the trail have spending money and want nice places to go. We just have to be able to provide those things for them.
“Communities that have a trail should embrace it. It’s such a good thing. We have a wide range of people from all over the place stopping in Piedmont, and why else would they be coming here? I don’t think we could be doing what we’re doing at Solid Rock without the trail. We certainly couldn’t have grown like we have.”
Cary Estes and Art Meripol are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.
Text by Cary Estes • Photos by Art Meripol