DAPHNE, Ala. — In a neat, orderly row, five cars with large “gulfcaravan.com” decals across the top of their windshields pulled off U.S. 98 and into the parking lot of the Fastime gas station.
Then, the group’s huge recreational vehicle pulled in, and soon a swarm of enthusiastic customers from St. Louis had unloaded and was buying things inside — fried chicken, drinks, ice cream bars and lots of gasoline.
“It’s a great thing. I get to shop with somebody else’s money, then bring them presents back. And all the way, I’m helping the Gulf Coast’s economy,” said Kimmi Danilczyk, one of the 13 volunteers who make up what they call the “Gulf Caravan.”
The “spending caravan” was the brainchild of Dennis Gorg, who owns the Coffee Cartel café in St. Louis. The group raised an estimated $15,000 from friends, family and customers.
“We just decided to do it, and did it,” Gorg said. “Being a small business owner myself, I couldn’t imagine losing so many of my customers overnight over something that’s just perception, not a reality.”
The group left St. Louis on Monday with the goal of traveling a 300-mile stretch of the Gulf Coast while spending as much money as possible before Friday morning, when the group heads back to Missouri.
Gorg said that by inspiring other communities to follow their lead, he hoped the Gulf Caravan would eventually have an economic impact of at least $50,000.
“We want to show people everywhere that there is nothing that should be keeping anybody away from the Gulf Coast,” said Julia Eschen, one of the group’s leaders. “It’s absolutely beautiful down here.”
As she pumped gas and made purchases, Eschen, the general manager of Coffee Cartel, periodically spoke into a handheld transceiver to coordinate the group, which was organized into subgroups with names like Delta and Titanic.
The convoy began Tuesday morning in Bay St. Louis, Miss., then continued to Gulfport, Biloxi and Ocean Springs before arriving in Daphne. The group has kept to a strict time schedule, which means that each stop usually only lasts a few minutes.
“I want to come back when we can spend more time. The people have been just amazing. The hospitality has been incredible,” said Eschen. In Ocean Springs, business owners served the group glasses of lemonade.
At the Something Sweet bakery, the crew’s second stop in Daphne, a display of free cupcakes was waiting. Several local business owners and Daphne residents showed up to buy sweets alongside the visiting coterie.
“We got an e-mail and came to get into the spirit of the thing,” said Richard Pearl, who sat on a bench in front of the bakery with his wife, Katherine, and young son Aiden. “They seem to be a bunch of enthusiastic young people doing good with no strings attached. It’s wonderful.”
Today’s itinerary begins at 9 a.m. at Big O’s Seafood Grill in Gulf Shores, then continues to points in Orange Beach before moving on to Florida, including stops in Fort Walton Beach, and ending in Panama City.
There, city officials plan to hold a parade in the group’s honor, then Mayor Gayle Oberst will present Gorg with a “Key to Panama City Beach,” according to the city’s website.
Daphne Mayor Fred Small, who owns the Fastime convenience store, greeted the group at the gas station and stayed with them at Something Sweet.
“What this group is doing is exactly right. What businesses need most is customers,” Small said.
Eschen said that, before the trip began, the destination businesses were chosen because they are locally owned.
The group is still actively accepting contributions, though they are very careful not to give the perception that they are the same as tax-deductible donations. According to Eschen, anyone who gives $20 or more will get a souvenir the group buys at one of their stops.