Commentary: Columbus Food Trucks — Too Much Of A Good Thing?

The food truck Ajumama serves several different kinds of authentic Korean street food. Ajumama is one of the many food trucks found at the Dinin' Hall in Franklinton.(Photo: Thomas Bradley / WOSU)
The food truck Ajumama serves several different kinds of authentic Korean street food. Ajumama is one of the many food trucks found at the Dinin' Hall in Franklinton.(Photo: Thomas Bradley / WOSU)

Mobile dining isn’t new: anyone who has ever visited a county fair knows where to find the funnel cake stand.

Yet, food trucks have certainly grown in popularity with food choices that go beyond deep fried. Approximately 70 food trucks roam the streets of Columbus, offering a smorgasbord of tacos, perogies, and beignets.

Don’t have plans for the weekend? Schedule a taco truck tour. Or better yet, attend a food truck festival. Yup, mobile dining is very popular.

Maybe too popular.

With the rush of expansion and the creation of food truck food courts, I have to ask: is this trend about to reach its peak? Are food trucks the next dot-com bust?

To find the answer, let’s examine some positives and negatives of these restaurants on wheels.

First, a food truck is an entrepreneurs’ heaven. Trucks allow aspiring chefs, bakers, and business owners a relatively cheap option to sell their goods to the larger public.

The Dispatch reports it costs about $50,000, to launch a food truck, a lot less than $400,000 to start an immobile restaurant. However, low costs also mean higher chances of competition. Recently some brick and mortar locations have joined the food truck craze.

Take for example trucks from Los Jalopenos or Spineilli’s Deli. Yes, expanding the business to the mobile market allows restaurateurs opportunities to widen their reach. The fear is the expansion could hurt the image of independent food truck operation.

However, until McDonald’s opens a food truck, this fear is shallow at best.

Moving on, food truck diners love the trucks’ diverse menus. Venezuelan cuisine, Cajun food, cupcakes, barbeque – the food truck culture provides a wealth of delicious food options.

What it doesn’t provide is a wealth of locations.

With the exception of the occasional taco truck or the Surf and Trucks gathering at The Hills Market, mobile dining is located mostly within Interstate 270. Sure I love fusion tacos, I just don’t love the commute to find them.

Given its rapid growth, mobile dining has to move to new locations or else it will fall victim to over saturation.

Lastly, food trucks at their core are quirky, fun alternatives to traditional fast food. But the development of food truck food courts or food pods is troublesome.

The recently opened Dinin’ Hall in Franklinton offers hungry customers a central location to sample food trucks and eat comfortably. It is a great concept that supports the local food industry.

But remember that a food truck is just that – a truck.

Customers eat on their feet or on a curb and trucks move from location to location. Providing customers with indoor seating, waiting service, and central cashiers defeats the very purpose of mobile dining. These pods threaten to turn food trucks into a stationary eatery – or what you might call “a restaurant”

Or worse: a shopping mall food court.

Who knows if the food truck craze will last. In the meantime, take advantage of them while you can. I know this summer you can find me chasing after my favorite food truck – the ice cream truck.

Comments
  • Bethia

    Here’s an interesting piece from Josh Ozersky in Time Magazine. He argues that food trucks are not a fad – and are here to stay.
    http://ideas.time.com/2012/06/13/food-trucks-are-here-to-stay/

  • Brett payne

    This article is just idiotic.

  • Relephant

    Thank god for Dinin’ Hall, the food trucks are limited to where they can set up. The trucks cannot set up on the street, for curbside service as food trucks are known to do. The cannot park on city properties, and definitely not down town; where food trucks are notorious to be in other cities.

    Check Portland, Oregon, Albuquerque, NM the have a food hub that has been there for years, and I’m sure other cities have had them too.

    • Michael Carter

      Yeah! What they said! *Insert irrational and excessively defensive statement that demonstrates how far outside of the mainstream I am*

  • Relephant

    Thank god for Dinin’ Hall, the food trucks are limited to where they can set up. The trucks cannot set up on the street, for curbside service as food trucks are known to do. The cannot park on city properties, and definitely not down town; where food trucks are notorious to be in other cities.

    Check Portland, Oregon, Albuquerque, NM the have a food hub that has been there for years, and I’m sure other cities have had them too.

  • Anne

    I feel like I’m reading a bad high school newspaper column. What qualifies this person to comment on anything? WOSU should be embarrassed.

  • Sabracadabra

    Wow, you really think that the area INSIDE 270 is hard to commute to? Where do you live? Dublin? Stick to your f*ing Applebees and we’ll keep the good, creative food in the actual city where it is appreciated! Food trucks and sprawl don’t really mix. Where are they supposed to set up? In front of the local Walmart?

  • Andy

    There are quite a few odd leaps of logic in this article.

    First off, the ‘corporate trucks’ are in the unusual position of being the odd men out – they don’t get the respect that the first movers do, and they don’t get the followings of many of the other trucks. Insofar as the appeal of food trucks lies in allowing talented chefs to do things they couldn’t do otherwise without massive startup capital, this isn’t surprising – If I want an established restaurant’s food there’s no real point in seeking out their truck.

    Second, you entirely missed the point of Dinin’ Hall, which is that the same trucks aren’t there from one day to the next. You could eat there every day for a week+ without purchasing from the same truck twice. Beyond that, food pods are an established phenomenon elsewhere in the US. Portland, Austin, and others have quite a few. Sure, you could compare them to food courts, except that the food will be so much better at the pods that it isn’t funny and the trucks are locally owned and operated.

    And, regarding the assertion that the trucks are an alternative to fast food… I don’t even know where to begin! Think of it like this – if you wouldn’t categorize Spinelli’s or Los Jalapenos restaurant locations as fast food (they categorically aren’t!), then why would you lump them into that category with trucks that are far more diligent in sourcing and far more creative with their offerings?

    Finally, you’re dead wrong about the limited locations. There are *many* trucks that seek out lunch crowds at office parks well outside the outer belt. They are mobile, y’know…

    • Anne

      The scary thing is that the author of this article full of flawed logic is a PhD candidate at OSU! http://people.cohums.ohio-state.edu/kock4/

      Based on her poor writing skills, I assumed she was a high school intern.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=514511889 Liosliath Manner

        It’s a casual article, not a thesis. Chill out a little.

  • FarmerTodd

    The pod system works quite well in other cities (Eugene, OR is a shining example) across the country, I’m not surprised to find it popping up here.
    The problem with moving your food truck to a new location everyday or throughout the day is that it becomes hard develop a regular customer base. People like stability, even in their mobile food.

    I also think that a little bit of a bubble wouldn’t be a problem, it would give customers a chance to decide which food trucks and carts are good and worth supporting and which ones are not.

  • Jared R.

    Historical note: Mobile food operations are slightly newer than the state fair. Food carts preceded the invention of the restaurant by centuries in ancient Rome.

  • Josh

    I forgot that the majority of Central Ohio’s population lives outside 270? I understand this is just one blogger’s opinion but I would like to see assertions built on fact, not just the opinion of a suburbanite who obviously doesn’t understand the economics of the urban environments or mobile food.

  • Mike E

    Wow! So I guess there’s no room for debate on the subject?
    This article is just a little food for thought…

    • Andy

      There really is room for debate – I’ve certainly heard legitimate gripes about the proliferation of food trucks. It’s just strange how the article seemed to miss out on all of them and instead put forth arguments that don’t stand up to even casual scrutiny.

    • Andy

      There really is room for debate – I’ve certainly heard legitimate gripes about the proliferation of food trucks. It’s just strange how the article seemed to miss out on all of them and instead put forth arguments that don’t stand up to even casual scrutiny.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_4H55C2NZ5FS4PRMWWV4YCXBBIM John Dillinger

    i turned the porn off to read this bullshit

  • Newmail

    kock

  • jim ellison

    Hmm. Where to begin? First – I think we need to recall that this article is titled commentary….which means it is one persons opinion so it does not have the obligation to be well researched, fact checked or supported by data.

    Second….people…don’t bring this down to the level of The Dispatch Comments section. Please leave out the personal attacks on the writer and edited profanity – it diminishes the credibility of the commenters and the discussion.

    Point one: What is the writer’s credibility to provide commentary on this subject? (This writer does not seem to be well informed on the subject) Where is this Biegnet truck….I would like to eat there. Concession stands at Fairs are trailers – not what is presented and understood as mobile food in this article or our city. Concession trailers are a class of their own.

    Point Two I am not the person that should point the finger at a typo….but for an edited article….Jalopenos……really? I’m not sure how that got through spell check.

    There is not a food truck craze….we are seeing an explosion of them this year across the country but most informed writers have commented extensively that this is a trend not a fad. Various publications, trade publications and books have made strong arguments backed by strong numbers showing Food Trucks are far from a fad. From a book by respected food writer John T. Edge to the entire section devoted to mobile food at the National Restaurant Association Convention in Chicago…..the concept of mobile being a fad….was a fad……a couple years ago.

    Locations outside of 270…..there are plenty and growing. The demand is definitely growing outside of 270 take a few moments to see where these mobile businesses are posting their locations…New Albany, Delaware, Grove City, Lancaster, Pickerington…….

    Food Pods are essential for Food Trucks to meet the demands and expectations of their customers as well as to find a means to be profitable in the winter. The Dinin’ Hall is not a traditional Pod at all…..nor is it “jumping the shark”.

    I don’t see that this is informed commentary. I would say that the article did achieve it’s goal……fostering comments.

    My suggestions to the writer moving forward would be as follows.

    Get a more in depth understanding of mobile food. Shadow an owner for a day and write about what you learned.

    Consider going on a true Taco Truck tour with Columbus Food Adventures (no I am not an owner).

    Take a look at the many resources our city offers about the world of mobile food – blogs, organizations, festivals, several articles in The Alive, Columbus Monthly and elsewhere.

    Next June….if you are so inclined, write a follow up commentary on what you learned and observed….mobile food will still be around.

    Finally….good luck finding an ice cream truck…..those are few and far between these days. But if you have a contact number for one other than Jeni’s please post it, I would love to speak with them.

    As for WOSU….there are many people in our city that can write a better formulated and supported commentary on this subject and many others. Maybe look harder next time you are looking to post content.

  • WillRevenge

    I agree with other commentators who point out that the author’s writing and logic is just plain sophomoric. But the larger problem with this article is that the question it’s trying to answer—“have food trucks in Columbus jumped the shark?”—is just plain irrelevant. The real issue here is how Columbus’s layout affects the potential for food trucks to catch on here.

    Columbus is a very spread-out metropolitan area; there’s plenty of truth as to why we are considered the strip mall city of America, which is also why various chain restaurants like to test out new menu items on us because we’re seen as paragons of conventional surburbia. In addition, the split between the downtown business area and residential/consumer areas is extremely stark.

    All of this makes for a food truck scene that is as decentralized as Columbus is, which means unless one is actually willing to undertake a serious commute for food trucks, one’s selections are fairly limited. This limited selection means some people celebrate whatever food trucks there are in their neighborhood, with little regard to quality. Others with more discerning palettes, complain that the food trucks aren’t really that big of deal, that they’re being over-fetishized. This latter view appears to be what the author is implying.

    In addition, while I think food pods like “Dinin’ Hall” go against the very essence of food trucks—direct interaction with the owners, easy access by foot—it’s probably the best option for promoting food trucks in a city that is as spread out and foot traffic-unfriendly as Columbus. But they also mean that there are limits as to the development and appeal of food trucks; they’re not going away, as Kock suggests, but they’re also likely to remain atomized and over-hyped. And that’s fine, as long as one knows into what one is getting.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/LRJUWJ3PYA2UV6CLLHC6NV7WF4 Charlie

    Can WOSU please bring in some better talent? Stacia Kock’s consistently uninteresting and sophomoric commentary is trumped in it’s lack of programming quality only by Ann Fisher’s poorly moderated and omnipresent “open forums”. There are actually knowledgeable and talented people in Columbus. Please find them!

  • An Outside 270 Resident

    I liked the article. It touched on some things I was wondering myself. It was nice to see a general commentary out there “wondering out loud.”

    Supersaturation CAN happen which leads overall to less profitability if one vendor fails to create a loyal following to its specific niche. In general conversation with several truck owners, there is some loose concern of well-established brick and morters diluting the pool of uniqueness.

    On another side to the coin, a general rule of marketing is that all things reach peak and then go into either a slump or static phase. The question is – when’s the financially sustainable peak, and when’s the moment when the “shiny, novel and new” factors lose some luster.

    For those that expressed person specific speech (you attack a topic or approach, not a person) – why do you continue to read their stuff? Don’t like it? Don’t do it. Doing it, listening, reading supports the bottom number of viewers, readers and quantified dialogues.

  • guest

    @anne
    What qualifies you to comment?
    just wondering…

  • guest from Dublin

    @anne
    wow- you seemed to have done quite a bit of research on ms. kock by looking up her specific personal info
    A) you must have plenty of free time
    B) are a person that must be right 24/7 and or have a personal vendetta
    C) either way, it’s “stalker-riffic”

  • Spunky5886

    There aren’t food trucks in Pickerington or Reynoldsburg because they don’t allow them, unless they are working without permission, which I have seen a couple times in Reynoldsburg.

  • dontbeakock

    This article is proof that Stacia Kock has a very narrow view of what a food truck is/should be, and is possibly a fascist at heart. For shame.

    The bottom line (as mentioned) is they do provide a lower overhead venue for entrepreneurs. As they continue to proliferate we should expect to see continued improvement in quality, especially in the age of the internet(s) where reviews are easily accessible, and daily locations can be continually updated.

    As for myself (and probably most others), I don’t see myself frequenting a “McDonald’s food truck”. If I stop at one, it is to grab something a little different/random, and hopefully ‘dern tasty.

    I’d also like to comment that the majority of central Ohio’s population is actually fairly evenly split between the in/outside of dear old 270 (the star-bellied sneeches live within the inner belt, and those without live outside). Perhaps Ms. Kock is just expressing an outburst of food truck envy, since it seems apparent that the housing within the city is not good enough for her, but our food trucks are, and therefore it follows that she be generally disgusted that they would stay in areas of higher foot traffic/population density (what kind of logic lies behind a decision like that).

  • ljh

    Just back from Denver where every Tues and Thurs. they let the food trucks in Civic park and even put up some tables and chairs from noon till 2pm. Gets a great crowd.

  • Mecina00_2000

    Food trucks are a good thing. It would be nice if there were more of them parked on the streets in the short north, arena district areas at night. The food pod idea doesn’t sound all that bad either.

    I recently checked out the food truck/cart festival and my one complaint was that there are too many serving the same things (tacos, burritos, burgers etc.). There are those types of establishments everywhere. It would be great to have more than just a handfull of trucks serving for example Thai, Japenese, or American with a twist. Don’t get me wrong, I love my Late Night Slice, but it’s great to see trucks like Sweet Carrot doing something different. (chicken meatballs with ginger sauce). If only they could be out on the street more often!

    Also, lets get more of these trucks at large events around town like Pride and Comfest. I enjoy funnel cakes just as much as the next person, but I can get them at carnival truck heaven at the state fair.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_DRSPTKRWPMNSCDUH6XOWCBBDNQ Uncle Jack

    Urban density, foot traffic, and mobility combined are the key factors in the success of food trucks. Central Columbus has plenty of the former two, plus weekly events (e.g. concerts, festivals, etc.) in alternating parks, districts and venues, that draw the crowds that food truck vendors depend on. Don’t underestimate the importance of mobility to the food truck business as it is critical.

    I’ll grant that the author maybe doesn’t understand the logistics of the business, but when she opines about how food trucks don’t set up shop outside the 270 outerbelt where she lives, it makes her entire critique come off as poorly-veiled jealousy. I’d ask her how practical is it to expect a food truck to set up shop in the parking lot of Polaris Mall? Why not just build a permanent building instead?

  • Chef Nelson

    YOu do know that street food has been around for over 100 years in other countries. So, instead of thinking of this as some kind of fad, it should be looked at something in the making that should of been here a long time ago.