Last Thursday, we held our 2nd Annual Food Fort Member Showcase. The Fort was packed with important attendees and it served as a great networking event for our clients. It was truly a remarkable evening. Thanks to all who participated!
This spring, you may notice a change in downtown Columbus. As city dwellers hustle to their offices, a new sight and a new smell might stop them in their paths. Columbus-ites will be granted the opportunity to enjoy a quick bite, on the go, without worrying about the rollercoaster of emotions that go hand-in-hand with typical fast food offerings: where did this food come from? How many calories are in this? Is this actual beef? For the first time in Columbus’ history, food trucks & carts will be allowed to setup shop in select city-designated spots and curbsides.
After almost a year’s worth of intense discussions, meetings, and litigation between city officials and the mobile-food community, the City Of Columbus is ready to unveil its pilot program that will finally grant food trucks & carts access to a number of coveted, city-owned spots throughout Columbus. This momentous development signifies that Columbus’ food truck frenzy is not a fad, but rather a growing industry capable of producing big profits.
This past fall, the Kaplan Artists Group was granted the rights to manage the new city spot reservation system. With over three years experience successfully operating Ohio State Wexner Medical Center’s mobile food rotation, OhioFoodTruckFinder.com, as well as Co-Owning The Columbus Food Truck Festival, KAG was the city’s first choice to implement the new program. They expect to build upon a model that has already proven to work seamlessly for both the customer and the vendor.
“We’re really excited to expose the greatness of what Columbus has to offer with its small business owners,” Chas Kaplan, founder of KAG, said. “Columbus has an incredible foodie scene and it’s time to introduce the variety of talented chefs to the masses.”
The days of seeing the same food cart peddling the typical “street-meat” are in the past. The new reservation system will work through a website, allowing mobile food vendors to reserve select spots around the city, bringing variety to the streets, sure to please even the pickiest of eaters. Lisa Gutierrez, owner of Dos Hermanos Taco Truck, an authentic gourmet taco truck that specializes in tacos, tamales, and burritos, is eager to take advantage of the new city spots.
“My team is ready to provide a new experience for someone who’s never experienced a food truck,” Gutierrez said. “You’re going to walk away with freshly prepared cuisine made to order which will be unique for customers, new and old.”
Once launched, the link to the public website will be posted via Facebook at facebook.com/colsmfv. Locations dates, and serving times will be accessible along with which mobile vendor will be serving. By separating the serving shifts into four groups: breakfast, lunch, dinner, and late night, Columbus’ food trucks and carts will be more accessible than ever before. Initially lunch shifts will be rolled out first as the final kinks are worked out but come April, at any given time, regardless of when hunger hits, there will be a mobile vendor waiting. In addition, interested foodies can subscribe to a mailing list that will send out weekly schedules that not only detail which vendor will be out serving but also if there have been any modifications to their menu for that shift. Customers can track individual locations or sign up for all the locations separately, depending on their preference. The website will act as the master calendar, which will also provide updated schedules and vendor information. Questions to learn more about the program can also be addressed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
KAG also plans to promote each city spot, through the use of Facebook and Twitter, allowing Columbus-ites easy access to the mobile vendors scattered throughout the city. With a simple click of the mouse, curious customers can explore all the vendor options, without having to aimlessly walk the streets looking for their food truck fix.
Dos Hermanos Taco Truck plans to hit the city spots starting in March. Aside from their weekly Saturday night gig at Seventh Son Brewery, Dos Hermanos will utilize the cart locations to enhance their exposure, in hopes of securing more business opportunities throughout the rest of 2015.
Dos Hermanos began serving at OSU Medical Center in 2012 and has rapidly gained a loyal following. This past year, their cart has been featured at both Ohio Stadium and The Schottenstein Center during the men’s football and basketball games. Gutierrez is eager to take advantage of the additional spots through the new system.
“With the addition of the city locations, we are looking forward to having our best and busiest year yet, Gutierrez said. “2015 will truly be a landmark year for Columbus’ mobile food community.”
— Dos Hermanos Taco Truck has been a Food Fort member since spring of 2012. You can find them at www.facebook.com/doshermanostacotruck. They can also be reached for business inquiries at (614) 226-5286.
The pop-up restaurant concept is nothing new to Columbus. You may have paid a visit to Little Eater’s pop-up at The Hills Market Downtown this past fall. Chances are you have heard about Hot Chicken Takeover’s pop-up success in Olde Towne East. Pop-ups allow food entrepreneurs to grow their business without having to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars to open their own brick and mortar establishment. It allows them to work out the kinks, develop menu concepts, and create buzz affordably. The only worry…paying the rent on time.
Blu Olive Food Truck owner Steve Carmean lucked into his ideal pop-up spot this past November at Hey Hey Bar & Grill, a Merion & German Village staple. All it took was an opportunistically timed conversation between his kitchen manager, Alexander “The Beast” Martin, and Hey Hey owner Sue Gall.
“Alex was sitting at the bar and asked about about their kitchen,” Carmean informs. “As it turns out, their previous tenant had just moved out and they were looking for someone that could excite regulars, as well as attract new customers with their food. Sue had heard good things about us and the rest was history. We signed a lease agreement within weeks of that conversation.”
Blu Olive’s pop-up is not typical of others that come and go in a matter of months. By committing to a yearlong lease, Carmean is reinventing the way pop-ups operate, in hopes of introducing the Blu Olive brand to a new community. It will also keep him out of the cold for the first time since Blu Olive’s inception, where he typically would see winter food truck sales drop-off markedly.
“We went out our first two winters and this year, I told myself I would never do it again,” Carmean gripes. “The cold is unbelievable…you’re standing in front of a huge window while your truck vent continues to pull cold air in, blasting you in the face. If that doesn’t bother you, losing all the feeling in your feet an hour into service will.”
The fear of frostbite coupled with the fact that customers simply aren’t willing to wait in the frigid conditions convinced Carmean he had to change the way Blu Olive operates throughout the winter. Operating in a warm kitchen that wasn’t on wheels was the goal for the winter, making Hey Hey a quintessential fit.
Escaping the cold was the primary goal but with the additional space provided, Blu Olive’s kitchen is now filled with new ingredients, granting Carmean and Martin the flexibility to play with food truck favorites, while creating brand new dishes.
“When people come to Hey Hey, they’re sitting down having a beer and enjoying themselves,” Carmean notes. They’re not standing in line, trying to run back to work. That allows us more time to prep weekly specials, which we could never pull off on the truck.”
Carmean has made sure to keep certain food truck favorites the same. The popular Bison Burger, topped with grilled onions, cheddar & blue cheese, and served with OH! Chips, has seen little change and continues to be a best seller amongst Hey Hey faithful. However, the additional space and prep time has led to revived dishes such as the trendy grilled salmon sandwich which is now a salmon club baked on focaccia, locally sourced from Matija Breads. The pop-up approach has given Blu Olive the chance to reinvent itself, allowing Carmean and Martin’s culinary excellence to shine.
“Everything is easier when your kitchen is not moving around on wheels, Carmean says. “We have more room…we don’t have to worry about running out of water or dodging equipment falling off of shelves. The hardest part has been just simply letting people know we are here. Once we get our food in front of new customers, they’re back the next week trying something new.”
Blu Olive serves 5 to 9 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday, and 5 to 11 p.m. on weekend nights at Hey Hey Bar & Grill, located at 361 E. Whittier Street, German Village. You can reach them by phone at 614-445-9512. You can find the Blu Olive Food Truck every Wednesday night from 4 to 8 pm at the Bexley Natural Market, located at 508 N. Cassady Avenue, Bexley, Ohio. You can find more information about Blu Olive at www.bluolivefoodtruck.com and www.facebook.com/bluolive
This story was published in the January version of the The Metropreneur.
As the summer sizzle begins to cool off, restaurateurs look for ways to welcome the coming cold months by incorporating the winter season into their business model. Perhaps they will begin to offer more seasonal items like hearty comfort food to take customer’s minds of the impending winterapocalypse. They may begin to decorate the inside of their comfortably heated restaurants with seasonal selections: pumpkins, spider-webs…the premature Christmas tree may even pop up at the local pub in town. Typically, as the cold hits, restaurants across the country see an increase in business. The warm allure of glowing neon lights and savory smells draws customers in, allowing them to escape the gray landscape outside.
Now, imagine your restaurant has little to no heat, can only attract customers on a mildly cold day, and must serve a limited menu due to your pocket-sized kitchen. You are now in the shoes of a food truck operator faced with the chilling realization that winter is, in fact, coming. Millions of mobile food vendors across the country must come up with inventive ways to combat the cold to secure a profit throughout the winter months.
Columbus’ own Pitabilities, Red Plate Blue Plate truck, and Queen’s Table, along with Kenny’s Meat Wagon, reflect on past winter failures and share some inside knowledge on what it takes to stay both profitable and relevant during the “off-season.”
There’s a chill in the air
“Last winter, I had the grand idea that I was going to ‘man up’ and go all the way through spring without shutting the cart down,” Kenny Donnelly, owner of Kenny’s Meat Wagon says. “By mid-winter, I had completely lost feeling in my toes. This year, needless to say, my cart will be hibernating in December.”
While some food trucks operate for the duration of winter, business becomes much more spotty. The influx of festivals and event inquiries comes to a standstill.
“The cold brings an immediate customer drop off because people just don’t want to wait outside,” Chad Shipman of Pitabilities notes.
Most corporate offices around Central Ohio that offer mobile food vendors as lunch options to their employees discontinue their rotations mid-November, the first glaring sign that the “food truck season” is winding down. Perhaps Donnelly puts it best:
“Just like I don’t want to stand out in 10 degree weather, customers don’t want to come out in 10 degree weather to get food that’s going to get cold before they even get a chance to take a bite.”
How does a business with year-round employees stay afloat when profits freeze up by mid-December?
“Cash flow in the off-season is the hardest issue,” Thomas Adams, owner of Red Plate Blue Plate Truck says. “You really need to plan (save ahead) and find some other income sources.”
With Red Plate Blue Plate Truck set to close by mid-November, Adams mentions that saving money during the busy season is the best way to continue operating through winter.
“We go year round, only taking two weeks off over the holidays for routine truck maintenance,” Shipman says. “We have full-time employees that are guaranteed shifts in the winter…the only way to pay those employees is to set money aside when you’re in the green.”
It would seem that being fiscally responsible throughout the entire year is truly the only way to combat the profit drop-off mobile food operators face during the winter. However, these operations are recognized and reputable businesses. How does one stay “current” during the winter months while still bringing in revenue?
“My plans for the winter are to develop other sources of income that are too time consuming to start during the busy season,” Elvin Cooper, owner of Queen’s Table notes. “I have a few products, our homemade tartar sauce along with our celery juice, that I plan to get on store shelves this year.”
Keeping retail products on grocery store shelves is a great way to maintain brand recognition year-round. Donnelly agrees:
“I am working on bottling a few of my BBQ sauces…I want to get them bottled, labeled, then hit the local stores to give them samples to see if I can secure some shelf space. We’re really confident that our sauce will do well on store shelves.”
While food retail seems like a logical step for some trucks, Red Plate Blue Plate Truck and Pitabilities have other plans.
“We are developing some great ‘bar food’ plates to sell in local craft breweries and wine rooms,” Adams says. “We have a great summer sausage recipe, a tasty horseradish cheddar spread that has tested well amongst my fellow food truck peers, and some hearty caraway rye whole crackers, all handmade in small batches.”
Pitabilities plans to target large office buildings with their brand new catering service dubbed “The Pita Bar.”
“We are going to bring our food straight to the customer,” Shipman adds. “We set up everything right in your office so you don’t even have to bear the cold and you will have all the options available that we serve on our truck.”
Pitabilities’ “Pita Bar” has already started to secure profitable lunch gigs throughout the winter.
Thinking outside of the box is one way to bring in additional funding. With brands established throughout the spring and summer, it’s also important for mobile food vendors to continue to reach its customers during the winter months.
“If you decide to close up shop for the winter, stay on top of your social media,” Cooper says. “You are sure to have made some fans of your food…keep your social media presence so people will still see your name.”
Red Plate Blue Plate agrees:
“Maintain your social media presence with updates on what you’re up to, regardless of what it is,” Adams mentions. “People like to hear what it really takes to grow a business.”
Finally, what is the best way to stay sane during those final brisk days of business? Last words of wisdom from Donnelly:
“Put a coat on!”
This Saturday, eager spectators will pack The Food Fort, located at 737 Parkwood Ave., to witness Columbus Knife Fight Club’s 2nd cooking competition that spotlights the talents of local chefs around Central Ohio.
Brian Thornton of OH! Burgers Food Truck will compete against Dan Krause of That Food Truck in a cooking competition styled after Esquire’s popular “Knife Fight” television series. Thornton and Krause will have one hour to cook dishes that must incorporate three ingredients hand chosen by Catie Randazzo of Challah Food Truck, the winner of CKFC’s first ever Chef Showdown. An esteemed panel that includes Beth Stallings, editor of Columbus Crave Magazine, and other local chefs and food experts will then judge each individual dish and select a winner at the end of the night.
“Columbus Knife Fight is a great way to showcase the vast amount of culinary talent in Columbus,” Kevin Brennan, Food Fort Marketing and Development Manager said. “We received an outpouring of positive feedback from the local “foodie” community about the last Knife Fight that we were more than happy to host the event again.”
For the low cost of $10, with partial proceeds going to the Mid-Ohio Food Bank, spectators will receive a first-hand introduction to Columbus’ growing food community. Located at The Food Fort’s commercial kitchen and commissary, Columbus Knife Fight hopes to attract not only workers within the local service industry, but curious, food connoisseurs as well. With beer provided, as well as two food trucks: En Place and Flat Top Pizza Co., serving on-site, attendees will not only get to see a presentation of cooking excellence but will also be able to sample local food and beer from other talented vendors.