When Carlos and Laurie Liriano moved from Louisiana to the heart of Texas, they brought with them their taste for New Orleans hospitality -- and their gumbo recipes.
At Lost Pines Toyota, the dealership they own in the small town of Bastrop, outside Austin, the traditional Gumbo Friday gathering has gone from a small in-house event to a pillar of its community outreach and social media efforts.
The event started as a simple staff recognition party, with a couple of gallons of gumbo to fete the team members of the month. But at the dealership's five-year anniversary celebration last month, the gumbo output reached around 25 gallons and served more than 250 people.
Gumbo Friday, which now happens once every other month, has proved so popular with customers that many schedule service appointments to coincide with the occasion and wile away the time with a bowl of the Louisiana stew. Vendors show up, too.
"It has become a community gathering event that really has exposed a large number of people in our Texas community that have never had gumbo in the past," said Carlos Liriano, who was born in Cuba but moved to New Orleans with his parents at age 9.
Laurie Liriano cooks all of the gumbo herself, at home, with some help from her husband. She typically starts the roux -- the base of the sauce -- on Tuesday and adds in vegetables and meat over the next two days. If it's seafood gumbo, the protein goes in on Friday so it's fresh.
She also serves the food herself so she can have maximum interaction with visitors, some of whom are regulars from the local senior center and others who are new to the gathering, including service customers and car shoppers.
"It's just feel-good, "Hey we're in the middle of Texas, but we're from New Orleans and we made some gumbo, and come on in and have some,'" she said. "We don't pressure anybody to look at cars."
But, "We have seen people just come in for Gumbo Friday and end up test driving things and buying things. No question."
Russell Hawkins, left, with Lost Pines Toyota owner Carlos Liriano at last month's Gumbo Friday.
Brandon Dunham, the dealership's director of digital marketing, said that a few vehicles are left in the showroom during Gumbo Friday, such as lifted pickups and new offerings such as the Toyota 86 coupe, the former Scion FR-S.
"We pick vehicles that people may not typically associate with Toyota," Dunham said.
Gumbo is typically served from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. to accommodate people who have different lunch breaks, and Carlos Liriano typically serves as master of ceremonies, noting employee work anniversaries and birthdays in addition to other items on the day's agenda.
At last month's Gumbo Friday, for example, Lost Pines Toyota and the Liriano Family Foundation announced their support of a six-week tennis program for kids in keeping with the theme of promoting outdoor activities.
Carlos Liriano said Gumbo Friday and community support are baked into his business model, creating a virtuous circle.
"Here's the thing: If I do not sell a car or service a car or sell a part, I can't do any of this," he said. "Building trust ultimately will help us sell cars and service and parts."
Gumbo Friday and other community events also support Lost Pines' social media efforts by showing real customers and neighbors interacting at the dealership, as opposed to a generic advertising campaign.
"I really see us being involved in the community as also providing us a tremendous amount of content for our social media presence in our community," he said. "We're using our own pictures, our own faces, our own community."
"We're not going to post a picture from an advertising agency in California," Liriano said. "It's just not going to work here."