When Colin Kinney rounded the corner at East Ninth and Walnut, he expected to find his favorite food truck, Dim and Den Sum. What he discovered, much to his surprise, was an alleyway teeming with eight food trucks and upwards of 1,600 people.
"I was blown away," says Kinney, who walked from his office on Public Square. "I checked my Dim and Den Sum app to see where they were. I thought they would be the only guys here."
Launched in mid-June by the Downtown Cleveland Alliance and the newly christened NineTwelve District (think Warehouse District, Gateway, etc.), Walnut Wednesdays is a weekly food-truck round-up that turns sleepy Walnut Avenue into a rousing street festival. Some recent great weather and a boundless fondness for street food have combined to create an overnight sensation.
"It's definitely bigger than we ever thought it would be," admits Sheri Drake, DCA's business relations manager.
From 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., a caravan of food trucks set up on Walnut between East Ninth and East 12th, a move now possible thanks to revamped city legislation. On the day we visited, participants included Umami Moto, StrEat Mobile, Dim and Den Sum, Nosh Box, Zydeco Bistro, Pranzo Forno, Jibaro, Cakes Plus, and Elise's Crêpes. Lines for each one grew and grew until it was difficult to see where they led.
It's precisely that activity that lured Dean Ducato from the offices of Merrill Lynch. He, too, expected to find just one or two food trucks and a handful of people, but was elated to see the turnout. After enjoying a pepperoni, lettuce, and tomato sandwich from Nosh Box, Ducato vowed to return weekly.
"You want to go where the people are," he says. "You want to go where your friends are. You want to go where there's activity. People want more festive things like this in Cleveland."
Jennifer Gardner, an employee at the nearby law firm Dreyfuss Williams, has become a regular at Walnut Wednesdays, where she meets friends for lunch and socializing. What she appreciates most is the sheer variety of offerings.
"You don't expect to be able to walk out of your office and have a choice of pad Thai or chicken curry," she says. On a typical day, Gardner would be eating a salad or sandwich from a local café. Today, she is enjoying chicken curry with vegetables and rice from Umami Moto: The $6 cost was less than she usually spends.
Lacking any legitimate seating, Gardner, her friends, and pretty much everybody else are compelled to eat standing up, sitting on a curb, or taking the food back to their desks.
To streamline the process as much as possible, frequent food-truck diner and Walnut Wednesdays fan Jessica Bagwell suggests that visitors do a little prep work before they arrive.
"All of these trucks are online, either Facebook or Twitter, and post what they're serving" says Bagwell, who works in the Eaton Center building. "It saves you the time and trouble of walking around to every truck when you get here."
She also suggests having just one person per group stand in line to order and pick up the food.
More than just a fun food outing, these well-attended events are being used by the NineTwelve District to retain and attract tenants, according to DCA's Drake.
"We recognize that there is a severe lack of retail in the district," she says. "We have to give these buildings something they can market to potential tenants. We can use the food truck sales and foot traffic numbers to demonstrate the fact that this district can definitely support more retail."
Walnut Wednesdays and events like it expose visitors to a part of town with which they may not be fully familiar. Walking from Public Square, say, to grab lunch at Jibaro helps all the businesses along the way. Or so says Councilman Matt Zone, who was spotted lunching just east of his elected Ward 15.
"I left Gordon Square to come over here and support the young, bright entrepreneurs of Cleveland," he says between bites. "There is a spin-off effect, where people will go into the Phoenix Coffee or the corner drugstore."
But even if Walnut Wednesdays don't revive the downtown economy, they do create exactly the kind of festive urban vibe that Cleveland has long been striving to cultivate.