Food Truck Fridays in Balboa Park Have Come a Long Way in a Short Time

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This Friday, the summer-long Food Truck Fridays program in Balboa Park kicks off with a special concert event featuring the San Diego Youth Symphony. With attendance expected in the 5,000–10,000 range, the rapid growth of Food Truck Fridays demonstrates what can happen when you offer the right event at the right time to the right audience.

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Food Truck Fridays began in spring of 2016 as a pilot program managed by the Balboa Park Conservancy in partnership with the city’s Parks and Recreation department. On the coattails of Balboa Park’s Centennial Celebration the year before, the goal was to keep the momentum going by creating a recurring program to further activate the park’s Plaza de Panama, which had received a major Southwest Airlines Hearth of the Community grant to develop and revitalize unique public spaces. The funding had enabled the purchase of extra table and chair sets, planters, a large artificial lawn, over-sized beanbags, and large-size family game sets.

Feeding off the growing followings of gourmet food trucks among foodies and craft brewery aficionados, the first year of the program was a resounding success. Quickly, more food trucks had to be scheduled for the program’s official launch one month later in May. And the number of trucks available each week on a rotating basis grew from eight to 12 or more over the course of that first summer.

In the meantime, several Balboa Park museums were joining forces that year to launch a new Park After Dark initiative that would encourage museum visits during specially expanded evening summer hours. It was a marriage made in heaven, as not only did the museums help draw attention to the food truck presence as part of their own promotional efforts, but many agreed to offer hands-on activities for families related to their collections and exhibitions in the Plaza.

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The event took off from there with the help of free live musical performances by local groups like Jarabe Mexicano, Gator by the Bay/Bon Temps Social Club, Theo and the Zydeco Patrol, Pizarro Brothers, and Floyd Smith. On certain weeks, local radio sponsors, including KyXy 96.5, provided DJ’d music and activities for families.

The food truck selection is carefully curated by the Conservancy’s Director of Park Activation, Sue Varga, who lines up a balanced mix of food styles and types for each week’s program. Taking its usual collaborative approach, before the summer of 2017, the Conservancy invited 20 food trucks to serve free samples during a special tasting event for park staff, who voted on their favorites. The food trucks receiving the most favorable feedback are still in heavy rotation.

Not surprisingly, food trucks have become a popular fixture at any Conservancy-managed event in the park, including the annual Fiesta Botanica, Halloween Family Day, and Cinco de Mayo parkwide events. And to keep food truck fans happy during the long winter hiatus, the Conservancy launched an annual Holiday Food Truck Festival in December 2016. The four-day program between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day follows a formula similar to the summer Friday night program, taking advantage of the festive atmosphere created by the park’s elaborate holiday lights and decorations.

What’s especially remarkable about the growth of the program is that it has been powered mainly via word-of-mouth, social media, and press coverage. Food Truck Fridays have become the most anticipated program in Balboa Park each summer, and that anticipation will only increase with the participation of live musical performers like the San Diego Youth Symphony, the Carmen Murray Jazz Trio, and the Danny Green Quartet this summer, as well as a line dancing country night sponsored by KSON and a disco night sponsored by Sunny 98.1.

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