I revisit Blacksburg every five years because they were the first Internet-wired town and I like to go back and see what they’ve been up to. I take lots of photos to share what I find.
Blacksburg is a town of 50,000 in southwest Virginia in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is also the home of Virginia Tech, so during the school year it is filled with students. Which also means the students and residents are very connected with social media.
But what I discovered on this trip went way beyond the latest technology that residents are adopting or the university is inventing. I saw how a small start up from another city came to be seen as authentic and local to the Blacksburg community.
This is the story of Wicked Taco.
In 2010, Blacksburg was happy when Chipotle came to town. But Blacksburg’s Chipotle is much like every other Chipotle.
But I knew a contender had arrived when making plans to go to Blacksburg and tweeted to folks I’d be meeting with. Wicked Taco noticed, and sent me a tweet to come by for a taco.
And so I started following them and saw how engaged they were in social media, from Twitter to Facebook to Instagram.
I knew that when I arrived in Blacksburg, I’d have to check them out and see what I could learn.
They picked a great location, right on the path of students heading to their off-campus apartments.
Over Twitter, I contacted with Todd Townsend, the Founder and COO of Wicked Taco. When we met I learned that they’re based in Richmond, Virginia and this is their first location, with the second planned for Raleigh. He was kind enough to explain his vision in the midst of getting ready for their grand opening in Blacksburg, only a few days away.
Todd explained that the vision for Wicked Taco is for it not feel like a chain. They want to connect with the community – the residents, the university and the farmers surrounding Blacksburg. For example, they bought and dismantled two barns in the Shenandoah Valley, one red and one green, and used the wood for the walls – it’s visible behind Todd.
They conducted focus groups, talked to local businesses, visited the farmers’ market, talked to the University and created a group of “Ambassadors” to speak to along the way.
The Ambassadors discussed the promotions they’d like. How they’d like to hear from Wicked Taco (Facebook). How to make the interior feel special to Blacksburg and Virginia Tech. They would later become strong advocates. They are so connected on social media that when they did their soft opening they expected 30 people for lunch and 30 for dinner and wound up serving several hundred a day.
Wicked Taco also brought in students at the Architecture and Design School at Virginia Tech and they had the idea to do skateboard decks designed by students. There are about 50 of them now up on the walls (and when they open their next Wicked Taco in Raleigh, students there will do something different).
Wicked Taco now holds contests to create their music playlists. Their attention to detail is truly amazing.
High quality, locally sourced ingredients is also part of their vision. They want to be “craft brewers for tacos.” Their rotisserie chicken is all harvested within the Shenandoah Valley. Everything is fresh. Todd went to the farmer’s market and is working with local farmers to grow peppers that are indigenous to the area to make a signature salsa that you can only get at the Wicked Taco in Blacksburg.
He also found a local maker of hot sauce, Green Star, and now carries their line of sauces.
That week, everyone I spoke to was aware of Wicked Taco. Shannon Troyka, who ran their social media, had done a great job getting the word out.
I stopped back later that week for a traditional Grand Opening ceremony, with Todd and the Mayor of Blacksburg cutting the ribbon with one of those big scissors.
The Mayor, the Chamber of Commerce, employees, Ambassadors all seemed very pleased that Wicked Taco came to Blacksburg.
Like many of my trips to Blacksburg, I went to find out how the latest technology is being used, and left understanding how it’s delivering old-fashioned values of community. We could all use a bit of Wicked Taco thinking to go beyond social to become truly local.