Whether your food tastes run from Southern classic to Asian to cultural fusion, you’ll find something to like at Waco’s Restaurant Weekend, slated for the weekend of September 29 to October 1.
Carole Fergusson founded and coordinated the first Waco Restaurant Week in 2019, with the event taking in almost $10,000 to benefit Caritas Food Distribution Center. Its overwhelming success earmarked it to be an annual event, but then . . . the pandemic happened and ensuing supply chain issues have kept it grounded for the past four years. For the first time since the founding event, the citywide food showcase will take place over a weekend instead of a full week. The event benefits Keep Waco Beautiful and is chaired again by Fergusson, who now serves as the organization’s executive director, though she was working for a different nonprofit when she founded the first event in 2019.
“I worked in the service industry for a long time and have a passion for supporting it,” said Fergusson. “There are such abundant local food and beverage businesses locally — I wanted to celebrate that, and also to give back to the community.
“For Restaurant Week in 2019, we had 65 locally-owned businesses: restaurants, coffee shops, bars and food trucks — any food- or beverage-oriented business,” continued Fergusson. “For 2023, we’ve partnered with the Waco Convention Center and Visitors Bureau as the presenting sponsor, and proceeds will benefit Keep Waco Beautiful. Waco has such a vibrant food scene that we want to celebrate the food and beverage partners who make our city such a beautiful place to live. We had 34 vendors already registered by early August and would love 100 this year. Austin’s 2022 Restaurant Week had just a few more restaurants than we did in 2019, to show you what a success our first year was!
“Waco Restaurant Week is a great time for Wacoans and visitors to try out new restaurants, or try a new dish at their favorite restaurant,” said Dan Quandt, Director of Conventions and Tourism for the Waco Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Participating restaurants should see higher traffic, and if their offerings are successful, they may gain new customers. For tourists, their experience with our restaurants may be the most fondly remembered part of their Waco visit.”
“I’ll hear people say now and then, ‘There’s nothing to do in Waco,’ and that’s just not true!” Fergusson said. “I love that this event shows what a beautiful collaborative community we have, one where we support and celebrate each other. In doing that first Restaurant Week in 2019, we looked at bigger cities to model after, like Dallas and Austin. Those larger cities showcase more upscale businesses, but we wanted to be inclusive and representative of our city.
“A restaurant might offer a special menu or partner with a food truck, and we invite pop-ups,” Fergusson explained. “Ten of our 2019 pop-ups have grown into businesses with brick-and-mortar locations, including Milk Bottle Cookies, Around the World Waco, The Blasian Asian and Vietnomz Mobile Cuisine. Cha Community just had a food truck with drinks that year, and now they have two brick-and-mortar locations, in Waco and Temple, and have expanded to food service. In Waco, we have so many neighborhoods and pockets of food representative of their surrounding cultures, and it’s great to celebrate that collectively. In 2019, 22 of 65 vendors were BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and People of Color].”
“Our first experience with Restaurant Week was in 2019, when we were popping up around Waco as a boba tea truck!” said Jaja Chen, co-owner of Cha Community along with husband Devin Li. “Because we had just expanded from our pop-up tent to a truck, we had very limited professional marketing photos to use for our boba tea drinks. Participating in Restaurant Week provided us with photos of our drinks and tea truck, and marketing for us to continue expanding our food truck. We signed up immediately when we found out about the return of Restaurant Week this year. We love supporting local nonprofits and being a part of the growing food and beverage community in Waco.”
“Restaurants benefit from a collaborative event that promotes city pride, tourism and economic growth, and we want to give people a sense of place in their own city,” said Fergusson. “We want to not only share the food of all of our wonderful establishments but tell their entrepreneurial stories and share their journies. We aim to build connections by bridging communities and cultures, to connect the dots of Wacoans and local businesses. There are so many stories that haven’t been heard; maybe one chef is using their grandmother’s recipes, or offering food from their family culture, or tweaking a common recipe to create something entirely new. The pandemic showed us that we need each other more than we even realized.”
“Keep Waco Beautiful is a 44-year-old 501(c)3 nonprofit with a mission to engage and inspire to make Waco a more beautiful and sustainable place to live. We believe that our citizens thrive when they have the opportunity to benefit from beautiful surroundings and access to sustainable resources. Our programs focus on education, sustainable actions and beautification projects. A huge event is a collective project with the Sustainability Network conference Sept. 18-19 at the Waco Convention Center, to engage leaders on sustainability in their communities. Glass4Good has five locations to divert and recycle glass — it’s the first national program in Texas and has been a really successful project that they are replicating all over the country. Beautification is what it sounds like; many people think it’s just river clean-ups and we do that several times a year, but it’s a lot more.
“Some of our bigger projects are Heritage Square, Miss Nellie’s Pretty Place, Indian Springs Park and, most recently, the Bledsoe-Miller Children’s Learning Garden,” Fergusson said. “We have another upcoming project with Creative Waco on MLK and are always planting trees all across the city. These kinds of projects really center on collaborative cooperation. Everyone is not an expert in every area, but together we can swarm on a project and share our various areas of expertise. Even when we feel we don’t have much of an impact as individuals, we do when we do it together. We love to work with a collective impact model in mind so that we can reach our mission of a more beautiful and sustainable Waco.
“Just this year, Keep Waco Beautiful launched the Waco Green Business Alliance, a program mobilizing businesses to approach environmental actions and celebrating achievements,” said Fergusson. “It encourages businesses to be more sustainable in their respective industries, and we award a certification for that. We built that model off of other national examples, like Denver and Austin, and took ideas that made sense for Waco and our current business economy. We plan to expand the program and build more collaborative space in the green business industry.”
For more information on Waco’s Restaurant Weekend September 29 – October 1, or to register your food/beverage business, visit wacorestaurantweekend.com.