Joe Gentile remembers standing in a PNC Bank parking lot with the four vendors of his newly created Haddon Heights Farmer’s Market in 2011. Trying to wave down passing cars that winter day to shop at the outdoor market, Gentile believed in what the town and surrounding communities of Oaklyn and Audubon could achieve as a business community.
“When you’re at the top, there’s only one place to go,” Gentile said in a recent interview. “As fast as you got there, you come crashing down, but when you take small steps toward your goal, if you fall down, you don’t hit the bottom.”
Eight years later, Gentile is the owner of Local Links Market Cafe and the founder of the nonprofit business improvement organization Heights in Progress (HIP). His Haddon Heights Farmer’s Market is a Sunday staple.
This Saturday will mark another first in Gentile’s quest to bring together the three communities: Think eats (tacos) and trails (a plan to connect East Atlantic Avenue as a walking path). Beginning at 4 p.m. HIP will host the Tri-Town Taco Crawl, partnering with local restaurants Smoke BBQ in Audubon, Local Links Market Cafe in Haddon Heights, and the Square Meal and Tonewood Brewing, both in Oaklyn.
Those attending the Taco Crawl will pay $30 for 3 tacos, 3 sides, and a pint of draft beer from Tonewood. Each of the other restaurants, Local Links, Smoke BBQ and the Square Meal will provide their own take on tacos, offering options such as pork belly, brisket, and sausage. Meatless and dairy-free options will also be available.
Through events like this, HIP hopes to bridge zip codes and create an epicenter of business, culture and civic responsibility in “East Philly,” as Gentile calls this part of Camden County.
Instead of businesses competing against one another for customers, Gentile says he wants local companies to join a collective to promote one another.
“From a business improvement standpoint, take all these towns and you have a big population of people,” Gentile said. “It’s like 30,000 people as opposed to 7,500 here in Haddon Heights.
“It erases that persona of three separate towns. If someone said they were from Audubon, I’d say, ‘Oh, you’re from town,’” he said.
Gentile believes the physical gaps among the three towns will be remedied in part by Rails-to-Trails, a conservancy nonprofit that plans to convert the corridor running along the freight rail line on Atlantic Avenue into a trail for biking and walking.
The Atlantic Avenue Trail is planned as a 12-mile pathway connecting towns from Oaklyn to Winslow. The first phase of the project will begin on the one-mile section of the rail line between Audubon and Haddon Heights.
Saturday’s Taco Crawl hopes to bring awareness to this portion of the Atlantic Avenue Trail.
Aaron Clark, owner and pit boss of Smoke BBQ, is eager to see how the event can demonstrate the need for a trail through the corridor.
“Initially this idea was framed around Rails-to-Trails,” Clark said. “We thought about all the towns that would be affected by Rails-to-Trails, and thought, wouldn’t it be cool to spread awareness about it?”
“We don’t look at it as a ‘town thing,’ because when you come over the bridge, we have our own little metroplex,” he added.
For Gentile, even if Saturday’s turnout is low, he will still see the Taco Crawl as a success.
“This is about breaking down walls and building bridges between our communities,” Gentile said. “As far as I’m concerned, our communities are one community.”