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Photo by Anne Braly / Chris McDonald, owner of Mac's Subs & Fries, puts the finishing touches on one of his famous Philly cheese steaks.

A new ritual has formed in an empty lot at the corner of Fifth and Market streets in downtown Chattanooga. Three days a week, oversize vehicles with catchy names painted on the side line up to serve hungry customers drawn in by the delicious smells. Welcome to Food Truck Alley.

Food trucks, once a fad, have become a standard in the foodservice industry over the past few years. Larger cities around the country established congregate spaces for food trucks a decade or more ago, but it took a little longer in the Scenic City. Thanks goes to Karol Brigham, who brought the idea home after seeing it work in other cities during her travels.

"You know, you find a food truck that you like, and when you go back, it may not be there. Sometimes, they're so hard to find when they're all spread out everywhere," she says. "Some never park in the same place."

Now they do. Friday through Sunday, up to six trucks may be parked in the alley. You can hear them from a block away, their generators humming. Get closer, and the smell of food being prepared — burgers, tacos, Korean barbecue —draws you in.

Photo Gallery

Food Truck Alley

From his food truck, Chris McDonald cooks up specialties in the shadow of Cameron Hill, where he once spent his days as a foodservice worker at BlueCross BlueShield.

McDonald opened his food truck in June at the height of the pandemic.

"After my company let me go, I had to do something to bring in income," he says. "And I just love food. It's my passion. I love taking care of people."

During the week, McDonald's food truck, Mac's Subs & Fries, can be found at businesses around the area — "Anywhere someone calls me, I'm there," he says. But on Friday mornings, he can be found at Food Truck Alley.

"So far, things are going well," he says, adding that BlueCross BlueShield employees know where to find him. And though many continue to work from home, they find their way to the alley for one of Mac's Philly cheese steaks, a sandwich he claims can beat any found in Philly.

If you go

* Food Truck Alley is open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Friday though Sunday at 503 Market St. For more information, visit chattalley.com.

In a nearby vehicle, Boston Chancey says his long tenure in the restaurant business was always in brick-and-mortar eateries — until a year and a half ago when he hooked a food trailer to the back of his truck. SlingEm's started with a traveling schedule that took Chancey "all over the place, from Ooltewah to Cleveland, the North Shore and Red Bank," he says.

He now has a regular setup on Lee Highway Monday through Thursday, Food Truck Alley on Fridays and Ocoee Crossing in Cleveland on Saturdays.

Chancey says being in a set location has been good for business — even during the cold months and the pandemic. "People still have to eat," he says. "Our burgers and fries are really good. And we make a killer grilled cheese."

As the economy re-emerges from the COVID-19 slump, Chancey is hopeful. "The more business, the better," he says. "There's always the hope that we can do more sales and meet more people."

Food Truck Alley will fit up to six food trucks, and they rotate. You may not see the same food truck you ordered from the weekend before.

"I try to get new food trucks in, and I work on a first-come, first-served basis," Brigham says. "When I get a request, I try to get them in as soon as I can. But it's hard because the ones who get in all want to rebook."

McDonald and Chancey have been on-site multiple times, and husband-and-wife team Haajar and Terrence Collins have been mainstays since the lot opened in February.

Their food truck, Fud Vybez (pronounced Food Vibes), serves what Haajar Collins describes as a fusion between Southern and Caribbean cuisines. Jerk chicken is their specialty, but loaded fries with melted cheese and bacon, along with big burgers, are "house" favorites.

The Collinses got into the food-truck business three years ago and were often seen at Amazon, BlueCross BlueShield and other major Chattanooga businesses. That was before COVID. Now, they visit apartment complexes and subdivisions during the week and haul their food truck to treat downtown diners every weekend.

"This place has really helped replace a lot of those businesses we used to serve on a regular basis," Haajar Collins says.

Plans to expand hours and days for Food Truck Alley are pending. It's currently open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday though Sunday. As more downtown businesses reopen and the tourist season picks up, Brigham says she may shift to a lunch schedule from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., then dinner from 5 to 9 p.m. She's also working on getting a craft beer truck as a new resident in Food Truck Alley.

A few weeks into her new enterprise, Brigham is pleased with how things are progressing. "The trucks have been really busy, and they say it's working out for their businesses," she says.

Email Anne Braly at abraly@timesfreepress.com.

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