Arena gives Food Truck Fridays a new home to replace missing festivals

Truck operators say the lunch dates can help boost bottom lines burned by the pandemic.

NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas — On a day with chamber-of-commerce weather, count North Little Rock Mayor Joe Smith among those eager to wait in line for the return of Food Truck Fridays.

The lunchtime tradition returned for the first time since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic at a new spot in the parking lot of the Simmons Bank Arena.

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“These are our brick-and-mortars of tomorrow, so I’m glad we’re supporting these trucks being here right now,” said Mayor Smith, who waited on tacos from the bright red Taco Mexicano trailer. “They’re 20 deep at each of them. After this, we’re going to get ice cream.”

Four or five trucks regularly set up shop on Main St. across the river in Little Rock until this year. While the arena sits mostly empty, operators figured their lot would be perfect to let the trucks and customers roll in.

“This was an idea that we had really as we tried to find a way to reconnect with the community,” said arena sales manager Jeremy Flynn. “Obviously, we’re going through some hard times like everyone else is.”

In addition to the taco truck, Haygood B-B-Q and Loblolly Creamery took up socially distant space in the lot alongside I-30 and a block from the Arkansas River. 

“It’s funny. It was kind of hard to find some trucks because they’re so busy, which was surprising to me,” said Flynn. “If you think about it, there’s a lot of people who may feel safer coming to a food truck than going to a restaurant.”

But restaurants are reopening and this is a crucial time for truck operators looking to replace the fall festivals and fairs that have all gone on hiatus.

“Because there’s no big festivals, I think the food trucks are hurting a bit,” said Sally Mangel, who served up Arkansas-themed ice cream flavors from the Loblolly truck. “We’re being creative.”

The event will take place every Friday in October. Organizers hope more trucks sign on. Diners had to wait a little bit for their food, but spirits remained high, with pets and young children milling around. Nearly everyone had masks and trucks had signs requiring face coverings while ordering.

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All indications that if fans can wait for their food, food trucks can wait a little longer for the pandemic to pass.

“It’s really nice to have some more food truck courts,” Mangel said. “As long as everyone stays safe and is socially distant and wears masks.”