This Saturday, an expected 8,000 or more people will pay at least $5 each for the privilege of buying food from some of the 39 trucks parked at the South Carolina State Fairgrounds.
It’s the third year that the company Food Truck Festivals of America will travel to Columbia from its Boston home base to host the event, inviting food trucks from within a two-hour radius of Columbia to join in. This year, the growing company will host festivals in 16 cities, up from 12 last year, when more than 100,000 people attended the company’s events.
The festival is one of several Columbia food events in the past few years hosted by out-of-town companies — from The Mac Off, thrown by a Charleston company that numbers Columbia among the four stops on its mac and cheese tour, to America Loves Bacon, a national food festival that came to Columbia a few years ago.
Columbia, it seems, has become an attractive stop for national food festivals. But those events have also seen some growing pains.
The first year of the South Carolina Food Truck and Craft Beer Festival hit snags. The 2015 event was held at the State Farmers Market; traffic backed up for miles, clogging two interstates. Wait times inside the festival were equally arduous, with some people reporting waiting hours for their food. Eventually, the festival had to halt admissions for a few hours.
For 2016, though, the festival was moved to the fairgrounds, an attempt to improve traffic flow. Though there were still some complaints, chiefly about long lines to buy food and a lack of seating, overall the reports were much more positive.
“We hoped people would give us a second chance; they did give us a second chance,” says Anne-Marie Aigner, who owns Food Truck Festivals of America. “We love Columbia.”
One of the problems with that first year, says Aigner, was food trucks not being prepared for the huge crowd.
“We were new in the market, they didn’t know us, so our recommendations were to bring enough food for X number of people, and they didn’t bring enough food,” she says. “We were overwhelmed.”
Gerard Lin, who owns Columbia-based Wurst Wagen, agrees that vendors sometimes don’t bring enough food — or just can’t keep up.
The Wurst Wagen wasn’t involved in the first year of the festival, but Lin was there last year and has signed on again for 2017. He serves an array of German sausages and sides, as well as doner kebabs.
Lin’s goal is to keep his service clicking along at a one-minute-per-customer rate.
“It’s supposed to be a pleasant experience,” he says. “It took about 15 minutes to wait in our line [last year].”
Other vendors, meanwhile, move more slowly. That’s partly a function of popularity — 2 Fat 2 Fly has been on national TV, so everyone wants to get in on those stuffed chicken wings — and partly a function of capacity.
While Lin will bring enough food to serve, says, 750 people, he says, that’s hard for some vendors.
“Once we work these bigger festivals, we’ll pump it out. I have a well-trained team. It’s really crucial that every team member knows what to do. … The customer cannot wait 20 minutes, an hour for their food.”
After that troubled first year, there was some griping around Columbia about the fact that Food Truck Festivals of America is based in Massachusetts, not locally.
Aigner — who travels to all the festivals she hosts — says she makes no apologies.
“We’re happy to be able to bring the experience of food truck festivals to markets that wouldn’t necessarily otherwise have them,” she says, noting that the company steers clear of bigger markets like Chicago, New York, even their native Boston, which are saturated. “They’ve got more food truck events than they need.”
“We try to localize as much as possible with breweries and food trucks and media,” she goes on. “Other than that the five people we bring to each festival are based in Boston, we are as local as possible.”
Things are going so well, she says, that the company hopes to someday host two festivals a year in Columbia.
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