Obviously, the ability to purchase food from streetside vendors is not new. However, it’s probably fair to say that Columbus has never had as many diverse mobile food operations as it does right now.
From international cuisine to American barbecue to desserts, it appears that food carts and trucks in the Capital City offer something for everyone. Their appeal, though, is not solely based on the fare they serve, according to local experts and truck and cart owners.
The carts and trucks’ uniqueness, a lack of corporate cafeterias, and sheer convenience are a few reasons they are so popular, says Bob Kramer, director of food services and food safety at the Economic and Community Development Institute in Columbus, who estimates that about 400 mobile food operations are licensed by the city.
“For myself, the food is good, I like the interactions that you have, it’s more informal,” says Bethia Woolf, a prolific local food blogger and founder of Columbus Food Adventures.
“I enjoy watching the food being prepared,” she adds.
Kenny Kim, co-owner of Foodie Cart, which specializes in Japanese crepes, says the current economic climate and Americans’ love affair with options are behind the trend.
“People also love to cut out the foreplay sometimes,” he continues. “They just want to eat and go.”
Kevin Caskey, chef and owner of Skillet, a restaurant at 410 E. Whittier St. in Columbus that also operates a complementary food truck, says that more varied menu options are another important factor.
And although many restaurants offer comfortable accommodations, bathrooms, non-plastic flatware, and alcoholic beverages, cart and truck owners contend they aren’t necessarily “beneath” restaurants, that their operations have advantages as well.
Both Caskey and Carla Saunders, owner of the 3 Babes and a Baker cupcake truck, say the dialogue with their customers is something both parties enjoy.
Plus, there is “a little more excitement in carts and trucks because of the uncertainty of location and the short time frame,” Kim says. “Mobile units sell out way more than restaurants due to limited space. You kind of feel special when you get food that other people missed out on.”
Food cart and truck owners also say their mode of business makes it possible for them to do what they enjoy without making the substantial financial investment a traditional restaurant requires.
“The low overhead is great,” Saunders says.
Similarly, Kim says mobile food operations allow “the starving artist to paint or, in this situation, cook,” he adds. “I bet some of the best chefs/home cooks would never be able to start a restaurant, but they could get a food truck or cart.”
Kim says he used about $4,000 to get up and running, Saunders says she used about $15,000, and Caskey says he used about $7,000.
In Caskey’s case, a food truck also affords “greater exposure for [the Skillet] concept, as well as opening us up to different demographic bases by having reduced menu retails or price points,” he says.
None of the owners and experts interviewed by The Metropreneur expressed concern over competition between brick-and-mortar restaurants and food carts and trucks, but a few did speculate that tension between the two could arise in the near future.
If the number of carts and trucks continues to grow at its current pace, there could be trouble, Woolf says.
“I am hoping that a food war doesn’t break out next year when the number of mobile food units grow exponentially,” Kim says. “It can all be prevented by being thoughtful and taking the time to find win-win locations. We −mobile food units− do have the right to set-up anywhere that our license permits, but we should be conscious of who’s around. If you sell burgers, don’t set up in front of a burger joint. Try to find some place that needs burgers.”
Kim went on to express his gratitude over the graciousness shown to him by several Gay Street restaurateurs with establishments just feet from Foodie Cart’s primary location.
“I emailed Liz [Lessner, owner of Tip Top Kitchen & Cocktails] and wrote that if she had any problems with us setting up near her restaurant we would scram,” he says. “She replied by saying that she was happy we were set up close by and said we could use her restroom or borrow food if we needed. She is a class act for sure. The Plaintain Café owner brought us our first Cuban sandwich and Sugardaddy’s Sumptuous Sweeties down the street always hook us up with delicious brownies delivered by one of our favorite customers that works there.”
At this point, the relationship between restaurants and food carts and trucks is a symbiotic one, Caskey says, as market penetration for the latter is still on the threshold of its potential in Columbus.
Of course, it’s arguable that the opportunity for local conflict could be reduced if some current food cart and truck owners went on to open their own storefronts. In the meantime, though, truck and cart owners will have access to additional resources at ECDI’s new facilities on Old Leonard Avenue.
There, a commissary will feature food prep and storage space for mobile food carts, trucks and vans, and a commercial bakery will accommodate up to four bakers at one time.
Spaces will be leased to food cart and truck owners, caterers, and bakers for reasonable rates, Kramer says, and his food safety expertise −gleaned over more than 25 years at Columbus Public Health, 12 of which were spent supervising the Food Safety Program− will surely be valuable to newcomers.
Kim, for one, hopes the local mobile food scene continues to blossom.
“Strong, healthy competition is just what the doctor ordered,” he says. “The more options we have, the less we have to settle for mediocre options. These restaurants and mobile food units are all separate ideas that people came up with to serve food. All good ideas should be welcome.”
Thinking about opening your own Food Cart or Food Truck Business? Then you’ll want to check out our online guide:
“How To Open a Food Cart or Food Truck in Columbus“
Photography by Adam Slane.