“What were all these people doing on a Friday night before?”
That’s what Rock Hill’s downtown manager thought when she saw the size of the crowd at Fountain Park at the inaugural Food Truck Friday event. In a way, the number of people streaming into the park Friday was a huge success, exceeding the organizers’ expectations for how many city residents would show up for a free concert and a chance to get some street food.
But it also became a problem as the vendors at the event were quickly overwhelmed. Those hoping to spend an evening in the park instead spent an hour or more waiting in criss-crossing lines outside the food trucks on a closed section of Saluda Street. City volunteers were unprepared, at times running low on beer, tickets, even spare change.
The clear signal heard from people at the event and since, said Downtown Manager Cathy Murphy, is the need for more.
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“More trucks, more space, more volunteers, more portajohns,” she said.
The city didn’t take an official headcount at Food Truck Friday, but Murphy estimates the crowd was double what was expected when they set the number of vendors. Using info from the website foodtrucksin.com, Murphy planned for one truck for every 200 to 300 people at the event. With an expected turnout of 1,200 to 1,500 residents, six food trucks were on hand Friday, plus three others selling snowcones, cupcakes and Italian ice.
Obviously, Murphy says, there were many more, about 3,000 by her best guess. Friday’s event was only the first in a planned summer-long series of Food Truck Fridays at Fountain Park, and city officials spent the days after the event reviewing what they can do differently next time.
First, they will be prepared for a larger turnout. Murphy says they plan to add four to five additional food trucks and an extra beer truck. Portions of Main Street and Elizabeth Lane adjacent to the park will be closed along with Saluda so the trucks will be more spread out, hopefully thinning out the lines by giving patrons more options. She also hopes to have more volunteers on hand to handle collecting tickets and pouring beer.
“I need more people to help,” Murphy said.
Organizers may try to expand the area where visitors are allowed to drink alcohol. On Friday, drinkers were limited to the closed area around Saluda Street, compounding the crowds near the trucks. Next month, the city will also allow alcohol on Elizabeth and Main, but before drinks can be allowed inside Fountain Park itself, the parks commission will need to waive its rules against alcohol in city parks. Murphy said the city may ask the commission to waive its rules in June.
Rock Hill resident Charlie Ruffalo agrees with the city’s assessment. In addition to attending Friday’s event, he’s a food prep professional himself as owner of Rock Hill’s Sub Station II restaurant.
“There’s going to be a learning curve with any event like this,” he said. “For a first-time event, this was a great turnout... so they just got caught flat-footed.”
Ruffalo timed his own wait at a food truck at an hour, followed by 23 seconds ordering at the window and another 12 minutes waiting on his meal.
“Except for the barbecue, which could keep stuff under heat lamps, it looked like most of them made their food to order,” he said.
He was worried out-of-town food trucks would take business away from local restaurants, but from talking to other restaurant owners, Ruffalo says downtown businesses saw an uptick in traffic Friday night as the crowds spilled out of the park. Even Ruffalo’s own Cherry Road location saw more business, he said.
Of course, some of those restaurant customers may have been leaving the food truck lines.
“I saw people in the park calling and picking up pizza deliveries,” Ruffalo said.
Food Truck Fridays will be held each month on the third Friday until September. The next time the food trucks will be in Fountain Park is June 19.
It’s important for city residents to know about any changes planners make to the event, so that the same crowds that came out last week won’t get discouraged from coming back next time. Murphy herself had an ongoing dialogue with visitors about the event on social media even as it was going on.
“We want them to know we own it and we’re trying to fix things, and that takes some of the wind out of the sails,” she said. “We had a great diversity in the crowds, from young to old, racially. This is an event everybody enjoyed... so this is a good problem to have.”
Despite his wait, Ruffalo said he plans to go back to Fountain Park again in June.
“The event itself is a fantastic idea, so I’m looking forward to the next one,” he said.
Bristow Marchant • 803-329-4062