City officials hope food truck rallies attract restaurants

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HANAHAN, S.C. (AP) – A quick search on Tripadvisor for Hanahan restaurants will produce more than a hundred dining options.

The only problem is that every restaurant listed among the website’s top-20 picks are mostly located in North Charleston.

That’s something Mayor Christie Rainwater is trying to change.

Rainwater can count on both hands the number of restaurants that are located within the city limits. Rainwater admits that having less than a dozen places for folks to eat out isn’t ideal for a city with a population pushing 27,000.

“We don’t want our residents driving to Park Circle or Daniel Island or downtown Charleston to go out to eat,” Rainwater said. “They are paying property taxes in Hanahan and then taking their hard-earned money and spending it in other cities. We are shooting ourselves in the foot instead of reinvesting in our own community.”

In September 2019, Rainwater and City Council came up with the idea for food trucks to gather downtown on the fourth Friday of each month in hopes of attracting more brick-and-mortar restaurants to the city. By February, the city was ready for its first food truck rally.

The first Fourth Friday event was a huge success as thousands crammed into the gravel parking lot across the street from city hall. The dozen or so food trucks that circled the lot and lined Yeamans Hall Road that pre-pandemic night ran out of offerings two hours early.

“It was crazy, there was just a sea of people in that food truck court,” said Victor Colbert, owner of Cast Iron Food Truck and Catering, who was there that night. “There were so many people, you couldn’t tell who was in line and who wasn’t.”

The next morning, Rainwater’s phone wouldn’t stop ringing as food trucks from all over the Lowcountry begged for a spot in the next Fourth Friday. But the coronavirus pandemic hit two weeks later, and the city had to suspend the gatherings until September.

The city held its second Fourth Friday since the pandemic on Oct. 23 and had a modest response, but that hasn’t discouraged Rainwater or the city.

“We all have to rethink our expectations because of the pandemic,” Rainwater said. “Once things settle down and things get back to some kind of normalcy and people realize we’re out here again, they will come back.”

KEEPING THE DOLLARS LOCAL

It’s a cloudless, mild, early autumn night when the first of the food trucks pull into the parking lot across from City Hall and start the preparations for the night’s festivities.

There’s everything from burgers and comfort food, to Cajun selections to Italian Ice on the menus.

After a six-month hiatus, this is just the second Fourth Friday event to be held since the pandemic halted large gatherings back in March. The September Fourth Friday was marred by bad weather and a low turnout.

Rainwater is hoping for a better crowd on this night.

As the customers look over the menus from the various food trucks, ’70s-era, easy-listening rock drifts from the band playing in the nearby shelter.

When Gray Powers is looking to take his young family out to eat, he doesn’t want a hassle. With a 10-month-old daughter in tow, eating out has become more expedition than dining experience.

Before his daughter, Navy, arrived in January, Powers and wife Madeline, a life-long Hanahan resident, would hop onto I-26 and head over to Park Circle in North Charleston for a quick bite to eat. If they had some extra time, the family might hit Daniel Island or even go to downtown Charleston.

With a baby, getting out has become a chore, so staying close to home has become a priority. The problem is that Hanahan had very few dining options.

“Driving over to Park Circle isn’t that big of a deal, it’s right there, but having something in the city would be better,” Madeline Powers said.

Which is why they have been loyal customers at the Fourth Friday events. It’s just a few minutes from their house by car.

“It’s awesome,” Gray Powers said. “I love food trucks anyway because they are more unique than a restaurant, but at the Fourth Friday you have a bunch of different options.”

Jennifer Vick echoed that sentiment. Vick, who lives just down the street from City Hall, was able to walk to the event. Like the Powers, Vick would have gone to Park Circle or Daniel Island to eat had it not been for the food trucks.

“You don’t have to jump into a car. It’s a nice walk to get here,” Vick said. “We were here for the first one and it was packed. You could hardly move around. There are not as many people here tonight, but I think everyone will start coming back when word gets out.”

For Jeremy Skaggs and his four children, it is nice to be able to support local businesses and keep his money in Hanahan.

“We want to keep our dollars local as much as possible,” Skaggs said. “This is a great for us to unwind at the end of the week and we are able to get a lot of different menus to pick from.”

‘IT HAS POTENTIAL’

In June 2018, the city purchased the lot across from city hall for $310,000. There were some small, World War II-era cottages sitting on the property and with the demolition and asbestos removal from the barn, the city was all in for $383,000. A $5,000 grant was used to purchase the picnic tables, umbrellas and lights.

It’s all part of the city’s efforts to revitalize the small, downtown area. City Council and Rainwater were not exactly sure what to do with new property but knew it was going to be a part of an overall plan to start attracting people to downtown businesses.

“We knew the property had a lot of potential,” she said.

The idea of having a food truck rally was floated during a meeting one day and the momentum quickly built. Rainwater admits the city borrowed the idea from similar events in Austin, Texas.

“We did our research and knew how successful food truck rallies could be,” she said.

They cleared the land, renovated the barn that was already on the property and then went to work getting the word out to the public on social media. There was no official crowd count for the first Fourth Friday back in February. Rainwater said there was more than 9,000 likes on the city’s Facebook page before the event kicked off.

“The response was overwhelming,” she said.

Rainwater is confident that as Fourth Fridays can become more prominent on the dining landscape, restaurants will see the value in opening up brick-and-mortar buildings for an underserved market. The city is considering offering financial incentives for future restaurants.

“It’s something that has been talked about, but no ordinances have been passed, but it’s definitely on the table,” Rainwater said.

The Powers hope that the food trucks that have been showing up for Fourth Fridays will follow a similar path that Dashi restaurant did and locate permanently in Hanahan. Dashi had been a popular food truck in the area for years and finally decided to settle down in a permanent establishment just a few blocks from downtown Hanahan. Dashi also still operates a food truck.

“When you get a big enough following, I feel like you can open up a restaurant,” Powers said.

Colbert, who has operated Cast Iron’s Food Truck for more than eight years, is convinced that the more food trucks show up in Hanahan, the more they will see a market for new restaurants.

“Hanahan is definitely an underserved market,” Colbert said. “There’s a lot of potential. Personally, right now, I’m not in a position to open up a brick-and-mortar place, but if I was, Hanahan would definitely be at the top of my list.”

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