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Little Rock Food Truck Festival tastes success

Event in its 12th year draws crowd to revitalized downtown by Dale Ellis | September 18, 2023 at 7:21 a.m.
James Mann, owner of the Smashed N' Stacked food truck, works the grill during the Main Street Food Truck Festival in downtown Little Rock on Sunday, Sept. 17, 2023. See more photos at (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Colin Murphey)

Seasonal temperatures and clear skies Sunday brought people out by the tens of thousands as six blocks along Little Rock's Main Street corridor were transformed into a culinary cornucopia of proof that if it can be created in the kitchen, it can be created on a truck.

By the time the 12th annual Little Rock Food Truck Festival opened at 11 a.m. Sunday, Main Street had already begun filling up with people. Thirty minutes later, nearly every truck on the street had a line of at least a dozen people waiting to order, and by noon, some of the lines had grown to 30 or 40 people and Main Street was flooded with people walking up and down the street looking for a savory bite.

To manage the lines, many of the food truck operators employed online ordering by scanning a QR code, enabling hungry customers to scan the code, put in their order and wait for a text message instructing them to pick up their order.

Brandon and Sarah Cole of North Little Rock said they came downtown to sample a variety of dishes. On the corner of Main and Fourth streets shortly before noon, the couple had found a shady spot to stand as they sampled a bowl of noodles from one of the food trucks.

"It's been a lot of fun so far," Brandon said, as he and Sarah alternated taking bites from the bowl of noodles they were sharing.

"We're trying a little bit of this and a little bit of that," Sarah said. "Not getting full but trying to sample as much as we can."

"So no french fries," Brandon said.

"No french fries," Sarah agreed, with a laugh.

Walking the six-block length of the festival brought the sound of generators providing power to the many trucks parked along Main Street, the sight of hundreds of people walking almost shoulder-to-shoulder, and the aroma of foods ranging from burgers to barbecue to chicken and waffles to turkey legs and just about everything in between. All within sight of one another were trucks preparing Chinese food, Mexican food, Cajun food, seafood, desserts as varied as cheesecake, rolled ice cream and Italian ices, and even midway fare such as funnel cakes, cotton candy, corn dogs and kettle corn.

The offerings included something for just about everyone, and the venue, organizers agreed, was just about perfect, with clear skies and more moderate temperatures than the stifling heat of just a couple of weeks ago.

Kyle Leyenberger, communications director for the Downtown Little Rock Partnership, said this year's event had registered 65 food trucks and 60 arts and crafts vendors.

"Some years in the past we've had more than that, but this year we've shrunk the footprint because it was beginning to get unwieldy," Leyenberger said. "In years past it would spread out for two blocks in both directions, but we're set up this year from Third to Ninth streets along Main Street and we've got arts and crafts [stretched] onto Capitol."

  Gallery: 2023 Main Street Food Truck Festival


Parking options for the event were plentiful, with free parking at metered spaces on weekends, a city-owned parking deck at Sixth and Scott streets and a number of private parking lots in proximity, but by the opening at 11 a.m., nearby free parking spaces had almost entirely filled up.

"We always tell people to come early if they want to get food quickly," Leyenberger said. "I think a lot of people took that advice this year, so we've already got a fair crowd right at opening. The nice thing is, entry to the festival is free, parking is free if you can find a spot on the street, and we don't charge event parking to get into our deck, so there are lots of parking options."

Along with the food trucks were arts and crafts vendors -- some set up on Capitol Avenue and others interspersed along Main -- offering clothing, jewelry, books, puzzles and games, essential oils, and other items. In the pavilion at Main and Capitol, a karaoke stage was set up to provide entertainment.

On the stage shortly after noon was an exhibition of Irish step-dancing put on by McCafferty Academy of Irish Dance in Little Rock, owned by Marisa Christiansen, who was busy directing students on and off the stage in time to the traditional Irish music. Christiansen said that for the festival exhibition, she had 15 dancers from the school, ranging in age from 5 years old to adults, entertaining festivalgoers.

Also in the pavilion was an educational set-up by the Little Rock Fire Department, with an inflatable house used to teach children fire safety and what to do in the event of a house fire.

Melissa Peabody, a fire marshal with the Little Rock Fire Department, said the Fire Safety House provides training for kids to use "crawl low and go," the mantra to remember in escaping a house fire. The inflatable house includes a depiction of a kitchen, a fireplace, and an inflatable exit roughly 30 inches high with an inflatable smoke cloud billowing over it.

Peabody said the inflatable house often uses simulated smoke, but added that the feature was not in use Sunday due to the wind. That fact prompted Peabody's 8-year-old daughter, Lucia, to walk upright out of a second, normal-sized exit, proudly proclaiming, "Hey, there's no smoke so I can walk out like a normal person."

Peabody said there were a total of 16 firefighters working the festival, including four firefighter trainees, six firefighters on bicycle patrol, four -- including herself -- doing outreach and recruiting and two bomb squad members.

"That's routine," Peabody said of the bomb squad. "They're working incognito, like they do at many events. They were in this morning checking things, making sure there were no random backpacks or other things that might raise suspicion, and they stay around just keeping an eye on things."

Because all Little Rock firefighters are required to be certified as emergency medical technicians, she said, everyone was prepared to respond to medical emergencies if necessary.

Also in attendance were a number of Metropolitan Emergency Medical Services personnel on bicycles keeping an eye on the crowds, as well as a large contingent of Little Rock police officers on bicycles and on foot.

Food truck owner James Mann, owner of Smashed & Stacked, was busily preparing sliders on a portable grill placed underneath a tent behind his truck, as others prepped to-go boxes and put orders together. Mann said his normal spot is just south of Little Rock's SOMA Arts District in Pettaway Square on E. 21st and Commerce streets.

"Our goal today is to serve about 3,000 customers," Mann said, as he expertly slid sliders off of the grill and into one of a dozen or more to-go boxes set up in assembly-line fashion behind him. "We've brought supplies for 6,000 sliders, so if we have people order more than two, that number will change."

By 11:30 a.m., with Main Street filled with people, Smashed & Stacked had filled 37 orders and by 1 p.m., was closing in on 200, with six hours left to go and the biggest influx of attendees yet to show up.

Leyenberger said the idea behind the Food Truck Festival was to bring attention -- and people -- to downtown, an effort he said has been largely successful.

"The way this really started was 13 or 14 years ago, Main Street had a lot of vacant spaces, a lot of vacant storefronts, boarded-up storefronts," he said. "The Downtown Partnership exists to encourage investment, to encourage people to come downtown and to encourage people to come have fun here. So we formed a task force to look at things we could do on Main Street to kind of bring it back. This festival is one of the things that came out of that."

Leyenberger said the transformation of Main Street during the past decade, with the creation and ongoing development of the Main Street Creative Corridor, has transformed the heart of the city from a forbidding expanse of boarded-up buildings and vacant storefronts to a welcoming and vibrant destination.

"We now have the 300 block where the city has invested and gotten grants to redo the streetscape, and several restaurants now fill that block," he said. Additionally, downtown has seen a proliferation of development to include craft beer taprooms, loft apartments, artisan restaurants and the $24 million Little Rock Technology Park, which describes its mission as an innovation center to accelerate the location of technology-based ventures and formation of new ventures with a goal of providing quality job opportunities and economic development.

"This festival is a way to show people that downtown can have all sorts of stuff," Leyenberger said. "It's walkable, you can park in one spot and then go around and do all the stuff. I love working here because I can walk anywhere, I can eat at a different restaurant every day of the week, I can walk to all of my meetings down in the River Market. It's great to just park and never have to get back into the car all day."

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