Photo by David Heasley

(Roach) Coach to First Class

Coming up here in Columbus, the only food trucks that trolled the city were the not-so affectionately dubbed “street meat” carts that hovered outside the bars on campus. A drunken gyro here, a stoned Italian sausage there—these after-midnight carts made up the street scene. Then the taco trucks started appearing, mostly on the west side as Central American immigrants moved into that area of town. Selling mostly to the neighborhood, the taco trucks did not hit a community tipping point until an erstwhile group of Columbus foodies started seeking them out and writing about their experiences on tacotruckscolumbus.com.

Then food trucks blew up in places like New York, L.A., and Portland. All of a sudden, the term “roach coach” became a token phrase of the provincial, and food lovers began seeking out the new, the ethnic, and the passionate food purveyors that eschewed traditional concrete culture and brought their eateries to the eater. Columbus was no different, and thanks to the amazing aura of entrepreneurial spirit we have as a community, an all-local, all-the-time audience, and the support of such operations as Food Fort and The Commissary, our food truck scene is second to none in the Midwest.

This month marks the fifth anniversary of the Columbus Food Truck and Cart Festival, and it’s grown to be one of the marquee events of the summertime. Given that five is one of those numbers that everyone makes note of, we thought it would be an opportune time to check the temperature of the mobile eatery scene here in the capital city.

Mike Gallicchio, the veteran nightlife and event impresario, remembered how the fest got started: “I had a friend that worked at the Commons and he asked me to help him create a festival that would bring people to the new park and help them get exposure. I teamed up with Tim Wolf Starr and Chas Kaplan on the idea of doing a food truck festival and we ran with the idea.” It’s hard to remember, even though it was not that long ago, that the Commons once needed to come up with hooks to entice people into the city center. Now a joint project between Kaplan and Gallicchio, the festival, which has grown from 10,000 attendees its first year to over 40,000 last year, brings in trucks and fans from around the Midwest and East Coast. For Gallicchio, the success of the fest rests purely on the shoulders of the city’s work ethic and its Columbus-or-die supporters.

“I think the downslide in the economy at that time helped create a whole new demographic of people that wanted to go into business for themselves, be entrepreneurial,” he said. “Columbus has thrived because of this DIY spirit, and the food truck scene blossomed because of it. You know, are there adventurous eaters? Super supportive of local enterprises? I would say both. There are people here from all over the country and the world because of OSU. I think Columbus being a big university town hasn’t hurt the food truck scene, that’s for sure, but I think the food truck culture here in Columbus has pushed ourselves and made it much bigger than in other markets. And I would like to think the Columbus Food Truck Festival was the catalyst.”

This year’s fest will add a stellar roster of makers and crafters and a whole slate of performers, including this month’s (614) featured band, Friendly Faux, and Playing to Vapors, a special acoustic performance by Angela Perley, The High Definitions, Osage, Indigo Wild, and DJ Charles Erickson of Damn Girl and The Clampdown playing emcee.

Of course, the cest welcomes vendors that have been with the event since its inception and those that will be debuting their wares for the first time. Native Eats’ Alyssa Block, who entered the food cart fray this year and will be at the fest for the first time, loves her new gig.

“It has exceeded my expectations,” she said. “We have such a strong sense of community here in Columbus; everyone welcomed Native Eats with open arms and took to our concept with real enthusiasm. Eat local, source local, and please the locals.”

At the other end of the experience spectrum is Zach James, whose Paddy Wagon Food Truck empire started out as one truck posted up at the BP on Neil Avenue and now consists of a couple of trucks that can be found around the city at any given time, as well as a presence in the bar kitchens of Little Rock and Rambling House. He and his famous brisket have been at each Food Truck Festival and have been a part of the phenomenal growth.

“I came into this business straight out of college. I was looking to broaden my learning experience and get a little more in return than what I felt like I was receiving. At the time, there was no food truck craze,” James recalled. “There were no Commissaries, and no associations to speak of in Columbus, and my initial perception of this industry was of something that was within reach and was experimental, roaming, and free. My yearning for a job fit for a Kerouac novel quickly gave way to my love for this town. As I operated more and more around Columbus, its neighborhoods and their respective personalities grew on me. Before I knew it, I realized everything that I was looking for through owning a business was right here in Columbus.”

The immediate response to the food is also a selling point of the business for James. “The best thing about running a food truck is pulling off the job. We serve guests from the broadest demographics imaginable in Central Ohio. My job is genderless, class-neutral, and colorblind. You know you’re doing your job right when someone walks away smiling, and you know you’ve won when they come back for more.”

The growth of the imaginative, inspirational, and just down-right delicious food scene here in Columbus has certainly become one of the city’s selling points for tourism, as well as for people looking to relocate to a growing city. For a city that has struggled to come up with its own identity, pushing beyond being the lesser of the three “C” cities, the art and food communities are stepping up to fill the void. For Gallicchio, the mobile scene claims a rightful spot on the road to the hip-ification of the 614. “Columbus is on the move,” he said. “And the food truck scene is a large part of this progressive identity.” ν

The Fifth Annual Columbus Food Truck and Cart Festival takes place
August 14-16 at the Columbus Commons. For more, visit facebook.com/FoodTruckandCartFest.

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