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The Year of the Food Truck

Pitabilities. Columbus, OH. Photos Ben French
Pitabilities. Columbus, OH. Photos Ben French
Food is on the move in Ohio.

Not only are people enjoying delicious grub at their favorite Ohio eateries, they're enjoying it on Ohio's streets as well, buying their faves from the mobile confines of a culinary cart, mobile restaurant, traveling cafe, or, simply put, a food truck.

In an uncertain economy,  the food truck is a new way of doing business that appeals to the community and benefits both restaurant owners looking to expand, and potential restaurateurs not quite ready to commit to a brick-and-mortar location.

The restaurant-on-wheels notion has grown so much, it even caught Nissan’s eye. Earlier this year, the company unveiled a streamlined version of the food truck offering higher ceilings, counter space, serving windows and a more compact design able to negotiate smaller spaces.

To be fair, food carts and street eats are nothing new. Maneuvering through busy downtown streets, you’ve most likely seen vendors selling hot dogs or meaty sandwiches to busy workers having lunch on the go.

But this year’s trend saw a little upping of the food truck ante. Chefs and food aficionados in Ohio joined a nationwide mobile food movement, taking the concept of the cart to the next level by serving exotic, ethnic, gourmet foods from both carts and mobile kitchens. The festive fare combined with the increase in trucks and demand for mobile munching has caused Ohio’s major cities to take notice.

Truckin’ Across Ohio
Food Trucks cropping up throughout Ohio’s major cities has caused city councils in Cleveland and Cincinnati to figure out how to incorporate these mobile businesses into the community, while supporting existing local businesses and stimulating economic growth.

Just this year, Cleveland’s City Council voted to permanently allow food trucks to operate from parking spaces around the city. However, the trucks are not allowed to set up within 100 feet of an open restaurant.

Last year, Cincinnati’s City Council developed the Mobile Food and Beverage Truck Vending Pilot Program allowing food trucks to operate in designated areas around the city. This past June, the program was extended for another year.

In Columbus, the Economic and Community Development Institute, in operation since July, is encouraging the growth of this trend through one of its subsidiaries, The Food Fort. The ECDI promotes and stimulates growth within the community by assisting local businesses. They offer everything from legal classes to accounting classes and help with small business planning. The Food Fort works specifically with the rapidly growing trend of mobile kitchens.
Operating a food truck is not as simple as pulling up to an empty spot and opening for business. Licensing is not only different from state to state, but laws can vary from city to city and even in different parts of the city according to Stephen Brady, Director of Business Operations for ECDI.
Because carts and trucks are mobile restaurants, they must follow the same health, sanitation and fire codes as a brick-and-mortar restaurant, so getting a truck up and running requires cutting through some red tape. This is where The Food Fort can help.

Brady points to social media and food shows like Food Network’s The Great Food Truck Race, as a few reasons why these trucks have become more socially acceptable and even embraced by the community. If you have the idea, the culinary know-how and the goods, The Food Fort can help you get started. They even rent trucks.  The Food Fort also partners with companies that have large staffs, but limited lunch options.  It sends carts and trucks out to these office parks, giving workers variety. 
“Currently the Food Fort only operates in Columbus and the cities surrounding Columbus,” said Brady. But ECDI is keeping an eye on the Cleveland food scene.
“It’s very early in the process and too soon to say for sure if we will develop a similar mobile food organization there, but we will be working with food-based clients,” Brady said. “We are already receiving an interest in creating a similar mobile food model in Cleveland to support the dynamic food scene there and we will continue to evaluate the need.”

Brady estimates about 30 percent of ECDI’s clients are food-based. “We work with Liz Lessner (CEO and President of Betty’s Family of Restaurants), J. Gumbo’s, 3 Babes and a Baker (Columbus’ mobile cupcake truck) among others.”
Amidst all of the food truck phenomena, community events have sprung up in the major Ohio cities that cater directly to this trend, like Columbus’ Food Truck Festival in its Downtown park, Columbus Commons, this summer. While any business is going to be looking to make a profit, the overall philosophy of the food truck is not about competing with local restaurants, but rather adding options, reaching more people and creating a buzz.

Where the Grub Is
Some trucks have no anchor restaurant, while others are extensions of their popular counterpart. Most Columbus residents are familiar with Jeni’s ice cream. Now there is not only the Jeni’s Street Treats truck, but a smaller sidekick cart, Jeni’s half-pint truck.

German Village’s popular eatery, Skillet, also has a cart called Craig’s Geedunk, provided by the Food Fort, that shows up around the city serving gourmet fare through the end of October.

A newer cart on the scene is Kolache Republic. Started by three friends who share a taste for the Czechoslovakian pastry called kolache, this cart has introduced an alternative to fast food that is both unique, delicious and easy to eat on the go.

Co-founders and owners Rick Jardiolin, Dusty Kotchou and Doug Sauer quickly discovered that even owning a smaller cart is not easy. They turned to the Foot Fort for help. 

Jardiolin says employing the help of ECDI and the Food Fort helped immensely in expediting the process of getting their cart up and running. Now Columbus can enjoy this Czechoslovakian pastry filled with anything from apricots or strawberries to seasoned meats and cheeses.

Columbus has embraced this growing food truck culture by incorporating them into festivals and celebrations all over the city.Sponsored by the Harmony Project and the Urban Arts Outdoors, every Wednesday from June through September, Columbus Commons welcomes local food trucks and carts from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

As the weather gets colder, trucks will have the advantage over carts, however, you might be able to find your favorites. Just visit www.streeteats.com to see where these mobile eateries will be next.

If you are a fan of the Food Network, you might be familiar with The Great Food Truck Race. One of Cleveland’s trucks, Hodge Podge, competed in Season 2 and made it into one of the top two positions.

Hodge Podge and other trucks can be found at the C-Town Chow Down that happens in the spring. Food Trucks gather in Lincoln Park and hock their wares while live bands play.

During the summer, hungry patrons can visit Walnut Avenue between 11 and 1 p.m. for Walnut Wednesdays to find everything from Cajun food to crepes all served out of local food trucks.

Even though food truck proponents in Cincinnati are still working to define and expand their scope of operations, the city boasts several popular trucks including The Habañero Burrito Wagon, Café de Wheels and Señor Roy’s Taco Patrol, who have a growing number of devotees.

Mobile food, mobile phones and you
The Food Truck is more than just a fleeting fad, it is a growing trend with staying power and a healthy following.

Many trucks gather groupies either through tweets, websites or Facebook posts telling the faithful where they will be and when.

Have an idea for a unique culinary delight not yet experienced in your community? Try a truck, travel, twitter and take your treats to the streets to join the ranks of the mobile business owner.
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