By Natalie Simms
As the popularity of food trucks continues to grow across the country, the same cannot be said in Rome. Several local food truck owners don’t feel the Rome community is “receptive” to food trucks, forcing them focus on catering or go outside the area to be profitable.
“We have moved more and more away from public lunches just as other trucks have because the environment has just changed, especially in downtown Rome,” says Hillery Sawyer, owner of Speakcheesy food truck that opened in 2015.
“I do have regulars but I have to keep growing, so I do a lot of traveling and going to more community events outside the area … I’ve expanded into surrounding cities like Calhoun, Cedartown, Cartersville and Dalton.”
Sawyer says her catering business has grown about 60 percent since last October, including nearly doubling her wedding business.
“I do a lot of catering events for business lunches during the week. In Rome, its more of one organization asking us to come out for their employees and they foot the bill rather than us coming out with lots of individuals buying their own food,” she says.
Last spring, several operators set up a temporary food truck park at the Floyd County Board of Education.
“The temporary food truck park only works if Rome is backing it. From my experience, Rome likes something when it’s brand new but not week to week. So, I don’t see a food truck park really helping us out in Rome,” says Sawyer.
“Food trucks are an amazing way to incubate business and grow business with so many great options for a truck to travel to customers. Other areas and states are much more food truck friendly than here…I’m not really sure why it hasn’t taken off here in Rome.”
James Hall, who owns Sugar Rush & Grill food truck and operates the Otter’s Chicken food truck, agrees.
“I do a lot of special events outside of Rome, especially in Atlanta area, Douglasville and Paulding County. Food trucks are not invited to a lot of events Rome, like the downtown concerts,” he says. “It is frustrating to live in here but have to go elsewhere to make money.”
In recent weeks, Hall has set up the Otter’s Chicken truck for lunch service in the Ollie’s parking lot on Shorter Avenue in West Rome.
“I’ve been on Dean Street and at the Mathis Hardware on Shorter but it hard to get in an out of there with traffic. So we’ve been set up in the Ollie’s parking lot on Monday through Thursday and then I travel with the truck on the weekends to events outside of Rome,” he says.
Carrie Bishop, owner of Cupcakes Around the Corner, actually started her business with a food truck, then a storefront, and now back to a food truck. She says her business is good with her truck but has noticed a decline in other food trucks.
“I closed the storefront nearly two years ago. I just stay busier with the truck than I did with the storefront. I only set up on Fridays on Martha Berry (in Apria Healthcare parking lot) from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. or until we sell out,” she says. “When I am there, I do have people ask where other trucks are for lunch. I am not sure what’s happened to them. I know it hasn’t worked out for several trucks but it is still working for me.”
Michael Pearson, owner of Spartan Smoothies, says he has started doing a lot of special events and catering service with his mobile truck outside of Rome as well.
“Rome and Floyd County just don’t do a good job at supporting food trucks and I don’t know exactly why,” he says. “I am doing a good bit of special events and catering for company events, probably two to three times a week all over the area as far as Dalton and Carrollton.”
Pearson was the one who coordinated the Food Truck Friday temporary park at the Floyd BOE this past spring. He is working to coordinate a few more for fundraising events, such as next Monday’s (August 6) Food Truck Day at the Rome-Floyd Parks and Recreation office on Shorter Avenue to support the Sexual Assault Center of Northwest Georgia’s Rome Celebrity Dance Challenge.
“We do a lot of fundraisers because I love to give back to the community when I can. And we try to do what we can to help fellow food trucks out as well by including them in events,” he says.
“But for business, it all comes down to catering. I’ve seen a lot of good food trucks in Rome and lot of them have shut down. The vibe is just not as big in Rome as elsewhere and I think it’s mainly because there isn’t a food truck park.”
Local businessman T.K. Hamilton had a vision for central location called “Chow Town Park” on his property at 607 Shorter Ave. back in 2014 but city code requirements halted the plan. He even revisited the plan with a trial run event in May 2016, but nothing more has been developed. A central food truck location also was pitched as part of the ag center proposal in the most recent special purpose tax in Rome and Floyd County (the overall package was OK’d by voters last November).
As for the future, Sawyer says, “I’d like to bring a small food truck zone to Downtown Rome after hours, after the restaurants close. There are so many folks, especially college students, that are out after hours downtown. I am talking with the (Rome-Floyd) Planning Department and Downtown Development Authority about the idea. It’s our dream to integrate into downtown,” she says.
In the meantime, Sawyer and her business partner Benjamin Mitchell are in the process of purchasing a new 36-foot truck to do more large-scale festivals and music events.
“We can serve almost 200 people an hour in our current truck with a great set-up. But my big dream is to travel to music and arts festivals with more than 35,000 in attendance. There are so many large festivals between March and October all over the Southeast…we could even do an East Coast tour of music festivals,” she says.