Alexandria, VA – The cars line up early, winding their way through traffic cones and the check-in process for the newest entertainment outlet in Alexandria that is safe, socially distanced and fun for the whole family. Running most weekends since August, the Alexandria Drive-In epitomizes the creative connection of commerce and community. The project is managed by a partnership between the folks at ALX Community and The Garden, and it benefits small businesses, local charities, and families just looking to get out of the house and have some fun.
When the coronavirus pandemic upended our way of life last spring, many businesses were forced to shut their doors. The heart of Alexandria’s business community felt the sting particularly hard, as these are locally owned family businesses, restaurants, and boutiques. Charities were devastated as well, with incoming funds trickling down and in-person volunteering cancelled, all while the needs grew ever larger.
Slowly but surely, businesses sought creative ways to stay afloat while keeping their patrons safe. Restaurants offered takeout meals with curbside pickup. Medical offices instituted telehealth visits. Even the public libraries began curbside pickup for book orders placed online.
Many businesses incorporated charitable giving, donating food to health care workers and first responders. Entrepreneurs created raffles and awarded gift cards, donated meals, gave away free masks and more. The Old Town Business District hosted a Give Back shopping day where local charities received a percentage of sales, and the Toast ‘N Taste folks worked with several restaurants to provide donated meals to hospitals and food charities.
ALX Community finds a way to get involved
The folks at ALX Community wanted to do something. When ALX Community opened in Old Town in 2018 as a public space to rent an office, host a meeting, or manage a conference or event, there were three additional components to its charter. The team wanted to create a community for people to meet, provide a platform for people to learn, and give people the opportunity to give back. All of these goals became impossible to continue in the midst of a pandemic.
Chief Operating Officer Kelly Grant said, “We were looking for ways, without giving people Zoom fatigue, to do the things we do best, which is bring people together.”
Although frustrated, Grant and her gang at ALX were undaunted. They didn’t have a lot of money, but they put their energy and passion for bringing the community together into action. The thought of a drive-in made perfect sense. In fact, government and health officials were listing a drive-in theater as a model for how to be social and safely do things in the pandemic.
“A drive-in theater is the ideal environment for people to be entertained in their cars, with no worries about spreading the virus,” said Grant. “It checked all the easy boxes! We were sold. The only challenge was that none of us knew anything about running a movie theater,” she laughed. Snap.
What ensued was a crash course in licensing movies, finding a movie screen, getting traffic cones, enlisting valets, securing city permits, finding food trucks and portable bathrooms, and much, much more. Grant found a partner in Allen Brooks of The Garden and they were off and running.
Stonebridge stepped up and offered the parking lot of their property at 5100 Eisenhower Avenue. Grant’s team worked with the Alexandria Fire Department to determine how many cars would fit, using a pattern of ten feet between vehicles rather than six feet, to be on the safe side. They approached the Alexandria Police Department to request help, and the APD provided that help for free.
Alexandria Drive-In begins to give back
Grant discovered Goodfynds, a small startup that was making headlines for its innovative business model of locating food trucks and conducting cashless transactions. Founder Lemaire Stewart of Alexandria developed the platform. Grant said, “He just won startup of the year! He found the best local trucks, and figured out how people can order from their car. No more lines! The food truck folks told us they’ve had highest sales ever here at the drive-in. They said thank you – you just fed our families.”
Even with so many of the players stepping forward and donating services and volunteers, ALX needed to raise more funds, so they made pitch for sponsors. In less than a week, they’d secured funding for the first six weeks. Grant said her team was wowed by the response. “People are so giving, so kind, so believing, so trusting.”
Rounding out the endeavor was the giving back aspect. Grant and Brooks chose two local charities as beneficiaries of the first round of six movie showings, Volunteer Alexandria and Athena Rapid Response. “We initially planned six movies in August and September. We limited the scope as we just didn’t know how popular it would be,” said Grant. All six movies sold out in four days.
All the monies raised from ticket sales and sponsorships, after covering the hard costs of the movie license and screen, go directly to the charities selected for each showing. In the first six-week run of movies, Volunteer Alexandria and Athena each received $18,000 through the Alexandria Drive-In.
From the very first movie night, the planning team never stopped learning. Every week, they’d survey the movie-goers, vendors, and volunteers for valuable feedback, looking for ideas for improvements on sound, screen placement and position, food, etc.
They learned to change the parked position of the bigger cars and SUVs so families could watch from the backs of their cars. They learned to park the smaller cars up front and the larger cars in the back. They learned to keep extra radios on hand in case any car’s radio didn’t work.
“We kept tweaking, even at the end of that first run. We asked people, how long would you come to the movies? Are you willing to come in October, November, December? Remember that people have to stay in their cars. The answers? 100% said they’d come through October, 98% through November, and 76% would come through December. OK!”
They planned five more weekends, incorporating double features and adding nights, and they added three more nonprofits as beneficiaries, with each one getting a weekend of shows. The nonprofits were tasked with staffing the volunteers for the showings, and they could also request more donations.
One of those nonprofits was The Scholarship Fund of Alexandria (ASF). Unbeknownst to the ALX team, Jack Taylor Toyota has been a leading contributor to the ASF. When General Manager John Taylor learned ASF had been chosen as the recipient of one of the Drive-In weekends, he immediately pledged to match the funds raised, yet another example of the domino effect of paying it forward that has defined the Covid response throughout the business community in Alexandria.
Kelly Grant feels an intense amount of pride for what her team has been able to do. “I’ve always wanted ALX Community to be the voice of our community, to do special things, and to make a difference. When we started thinking about opening the drive-in, I asked my team, ‘Hey, do you want to open a separate business where we make no money and have to work weekends, but we do good things for the community?’ And they all said yes!” The future of the Alexandria Drive-In is up to the public, said Grant. If the people want the movies to continue, she and her team are all in.
At its most basic level, the success of the Alexandria Drive-In shows that people want to do the right thing. Once they have an outlet to do so, they step up and then typically do a little bit more. Every movie goer is contributing to the nonprofits through the ticket purchases, and the orders placed with the food trucks help the families running those trucks. And scores of volunteers make it all happen, giving of their own time to do the right thing.
Grant is thankful to be a part of it all and thrilled to be connected with so many like-minded business owners who work together and get things done to make Alexandria a better place to live. She said, “This has been pure adventure from the beginning to the end – we’re providing families with fun, distanced entertainment in a safe way, and we’re supporting so many deserving charities who do their great work right here in our community.”