Food Truck Friday is an example of how success can come from just one idea. Every first and third Friday of the month, the Opelika Chamber of Commerce brings the community together through its new event, Food Truck Fridays, offering great food and a great time.
The inspiration behind Food Truck Friday came from President and CEO of the Chamber Ali Rauch. She said she has enjoyed seeing people out and about in downtown Opelika since the events started in February. Food Truck Friday was born after Rauch said she noticed the long wait times at local restaurants in the downtown area and understood the frustrations people felt. With limited staffing and some restaurants closed, businesses took a hit, particularly on 1st Avenue and North Railroad.
Rauch wanted to give locals a chance to enjoy dinner during weekends in downtown and remind them what’s special, so special about historic downtown Opelika.
“After a business came to me and said, ‘I’d really like your help getting a food truck in front of my shop,’ I took it a step further and said, ‘What if we make it an entire event — a regular thing,’” Rauch said.
She, along with other chamber members, made this event a reality. Not only do different food trucks participate in this event, but catering companies and brick-and-mortar stores also partake in the festivities. Many participants of Food Truck Friday are chamber members themselves.
“We strengthen our community as the champion for business, and we regularly celebrate and serve our members by building awareness as we drive traffic to our many businesses and advocate for them when needed,” Rauch said. “We hoped that this would get people back into downtown, and they would be reminded that Opelika is Auburn’s hip older sister.”
Rauch described the energy in the streets of downtown on these special Friday evenings. The event welcomes families and friends to stop by and experience everything downtown Opelika has to offer. The chamber uses the diverse community’s pride for Opelika as the driving force behind making this event that much better.
Not only can the locals enjoy different food options on the go from the different food trucks, but people can also walk around the streets and enjoy drinks, shopping and the overall atmosphere.
“If you walk around on any first and third Friday, you just feel it,” Rauch said. “People are excited to be out, as they’re willing to wait in line for a long time to try some food.”
Food Truck Friday has brightened up the scene in downtown Opelika and has gone the extra mile to turn the\ entertainment scene around. As the weather warms up, Rauch expects the crowds to continue to grow. The crowds even persevered through the cold weather back in February to attend.
“We’re shining a spotlight on some new and amazing foodies who are showcasing their specialties,” Rauch said. “We’ve got an authentic, Spanish food truck, Las Latinas; a Latin-American food truck called Bodega; gourmet hot dogs at Franky June’s Weeny Wagon; award-winning barbeque at Boar’s Breath, Bill & Robbie’s Excellent BBQ Adventure and Butcher Paper BBQ; German food at German Food & Fine Gifts; and young entrepreneurs at Deljen’s, a shaved ice business started by 12-year-old Della, among others.”
Since the event’s start, Rauch explained how not only are the food trucks and bars involved in the event succeeding, but many local businesses are also thriving as a result of a positive chain reaction.
“The restaurants along South Railroad and Seventh and Eighth streets have all been very busy, most sharing double-digit increases in sales volume over prior years,” she said. “We have gotten requests from Boonie Hat Coffee, Fringe Boutique, Tart and Tartan, Z&Z Cigar, the Museum of East Alabama and Rock ‘N Roll Pinball, as they all want to be in on this event and participate because they are loving the people that are coming down to enjoy it.”
Moreover, Rauch said one of the local Opelika bars has had its biggest sales nights since its annual Burger Wars event that normally draws in most business.
“If we can create nights like that twice a month, think about the actual sales impact that has to help our businesses be more successful,” she said.
The pandemic has not been able to touch this event. In fact, Rauch seems to think it has strengthened Food Truck Friday. Using staff shortages in different restaurants as its motivation, the event utilizes its strength of encompassing larger crowds through a wide variety of food and entertainment accommodations.
Offering food options outside via trucks can bring peace of mind to customers who may be wary of eating in packed restaurants. Also, Rauch explained how the event has also attracted crowds because people are antsy to catch up with family and friends.
“That’s what I see when I’m there — people seeing each other and hugging each other because it’s been too long,” she said. “This gives them an avenue to hang out again.”
Rauch said she is truly astonished by how lively the entire downtown scene is now on Friday nights. She described seeing people’s faces light up when they walk along the streets and experience the magic for themselves.
Rauch said she recently received a phone call from a friend whose father once served on city council, who was almost in tears with joy because he had always hoped that downtown would one day be as bustling as Food Truck Friday has helped it become.
“Some of our food truck partners have grown significantly faster than expected because of the avenue we’ve created to help them find raving fans, and that makes my heart happy,” Rauch said. “Sarah with Mama Mocha’s recently had twins and has had limited hours where she’s open to make drinks for her fans. She opened for Food Truck Friday and has had record-breaking sales, even pre-pandemic.”
Rauch presented a sales analysis report for February and March to the city council in May, and it resulted in good news for supporters of Food Truck Friday.
The event will likely remain a staple in downtown Opelika. Positivity and growth were major themes that came out of Rauch’s report on the trial run at Opelika City Council’s May 17 meeting.
“I’m pleased to share that of all the downtown businesses, there were no participating businesses who experienced any negative impact from Food Truck Fridays,” she said.
Businesses experienced anywhere from 25 to 185% growth, thanks to the increase in foot traffic and sales during the event. One business even saw an “astronomical” 700 to 1,000%. Rauch submitted a formal request to the council to continue holding the event with specific plans and suggestions to make it beneficial to all patrons and businesses. Recently, they have added more lighting, trash cans and live music as Food Truck Friday is taking over First Avenue to accommodate the crowds and provide more space.
Also in the works is a goal to continue adding more seating to provide various spaces for customers to sit down and enjoy their meal, Rauch said.
Rauch expressed her gratitude for all the businesses that have given her positive feedback and appreciation. She also attributes her success to the other chamber members, who all work hard with her on Friday nights and Saturday mornings.
“To know that it’s helped so many businesses and that the citizens are loving it — I’m thrilled,” she said. “I couldn’t do it without my rockstar team who embraced the crazy idea and went with it.”
Rauch said they are interested in booking more musicians for Friday nights and anyone interested can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Food Truck Fridays also needs volunteers. Anyone interested can contact Ashley Colquitt at email@example.com.
Also, Rauch encourages nonprofits or other organizations to contact her if they would like to assemble and disassemble tables and chairs in exchange for promotion of their causes.
Businesses participating in Food Truck Friday are licensed and legitimate businesses through the city that pay sales tax and obtain health permits, validating their presence in the community just as Opelika’s stand-alone restaurants have. Rauch asks interested caterers or food trucks to visit the above website or to email firstname.lastname@example.org for all the details concerning participation and the application process.