Clintonville: The Stealth Mobile Food Mecca
Posted by cmh gourmand on September 29, 2012
Sometime in 2011, a myth arose in town that Clintonville was anti-mobile food. Parts of the myth were true or at least partially so. The trails and travails of Ray Ray’s BBQ were known by most of his regular customers and eventually it propelled his move to Ace of Cups just down the street in Olde North Columbus. While owner Jaime Anderson won rave reviews for his food and brought people to Clintonville – he was constantly at wit’s end dealing with vague, inconsistent and sometimes conflicting interpretations of city codes for his business. As a general rule while he had no health or safety concerns many of his woes often appeared to be on the whim of a complaint or an officials interpretation code. Jaime read the codes, consulted lawyers and tried to get concrete answers. Finally he had enough and moved on. It was a loss for Clintonville. In his wake, Jaime did pave the way for Mya’s Fried Chicken to take his old place at the corner of High Street and Pacemont. Jaime has coached, mentored and invested a lot of time to help that business take off at his old the spot. For the record – rent is paid to set up there adding more money to the community.
A more publicized mobile stumble was Yerba Buena in the summer of 2011. After a great turnout through the summer the business was prodded to move because it was set up in a parking lot of an unoccupied building. As it turns out, it would be OK for them to be in the spot if the building was occupied. Hmm, seems to me that a business set up in the parking lot of an empty building – that the community and the property owner would be benefiting. Such was not the case in the eyes of our city code. The rules are the rules but is does not make them right for the area or the times. Yerba Buena moved to another site one mile away on Indianola in partnership with a local business. An electrical hook up was installed and some other improvements were made but word of the move did not get out very well. The business slumped without support and due to inconsistent hours so it never came back after a fall of dwindling customers. There were plans to come back in the spring but it did not happen. The owners opened a second brick and mortar restaurant and had a new baby – both took their food trailer out of the equation for them and Yerba Buena went up for sale.
Another mobile vendor that had some issues, technically is not in Clintonville (and the owners made sure that was the case). The Coop sat at the intersection of Cliffside and Indianola, although most people would consider the location of this trailer to be Clintonville – it is officially in the University District. It was thought this would be an advantage….not really. The Coop survived many of the same issues and requests for inspections as Ray Ray’s. In the end, their landlord bought a table to place near their trailer and they (even when was Angie was very pregnant) moved the trailer each night when done serving and moved it back the next day. While there is no health and safety reason to do so – they did because they believed in the location, the community and the customers that supported them. The Coop is gone for now, but hopes to be back in March or April with a new baby in tow.
So those are woes of three mobile vendors. Three very popular vendors with great food. You would think with all of the hullabaloo that the fine citizens of Clintonville were hyper-vigilant against these intruders. They do have their eyes out but not to stop them, with a few isolated exceptions, the community embraces these vendors. It fact, Clintonville has a long history of eateries on wheels going back ten years or more.
Other vendors served in the area but stayed off the radar. Yankee Cajun did a decent business at Crest Tavern until the owner started to manage the bar and put his trailer up for sale. Vegglicious serves out of Global Galley on High Street with some regularity at a spot which helped launch Earth’s Crust / Krazy Monkey.
With the exception of a taco truck dense area of the west side, it seems that Clintonville and the hinterlands near it, have more mobile vendors per square mile than anywhere else in the city. Let’s plot them out. Boston Bert’s is still at Blenheim and Indianola. A line drive away is Hemisphere Coffee Roasters. Moving down Indianola to where it intersects with Weber, Taste of Greece Gyros set up about a month ago. The Coop, hopefully will be back at Cliffside and Indianola in the Spring. At the intersection of Hudson and Indianola – El Manantial Latino is set up 24 hours per day. Shifting down Hudson to High Street at Ace of Cups, Ray Ray’s is doing great in in his new digs. Maya’s is digging in for the winter and frying plenty of chicken for the masses. That is six vendors in a 5 minute driving radius for Clintonvillians.
There have been several events in Clintonville involving food trucks and carts that have been warmly received including several at Maple Grove United Methodist Church and now a food pod Thursday nights at The Charity Newsies Headquarters on Indianola through at least November 1st. Each Thursday from 5:30 to 8 pm, 3 mobile vendors set up to serve dinner. All tips go to Charity Newsies for their efforts to help local children. For every $140 raised – one child receives enough clothing to have clean garments each day of the week, plus a backpack, coat and dictionary. It is a win-win for all involved.
So for a community where the perception exists that mobile food is unwanted, the reality is it is embraced. Other than sections of the west side and Cleveland Ave. area, this part of Columbus hosts more mobile vendors more often than anywhere else….but off the radar of the city.
So why is this? Where is the disconnect? As a long time resident of the area, I can say that Clintonville wants more eateries and more diversity in menus. There is a reason why Northstar has been packed since the day it opened in the area – there are few other options nearby. In Baja Clintonville (South of Weber) on High Street, there are several good restaurants and a variety of options. Just beyond the Morse Road area, there are plenty of chain restaurants at Graceland. Villa Nova has a continuously full parking lot in the borderlands that guard Clintonville from Worthington and Riverlea.
The core area of Clintonville has a dense population with limited options to serve them. It may not be a food desert but it is an eatery dead zone. The Indianola isthmus of Clintonville also has a dearth of choices and is underdeveloped compared to the High Street corridor. Existing restaurant owners may struggle and some may worry about competition. It may seem counterintuitive but more competition is what the area needs to grow and for people to keep their dining dollars in the community. More importantly, like the Short North, Grandview and other areas of town, restaurants grounded in brick and mortar or attached to wheels bring people outside the area into the community, providing an opportunity to show off what else the community has to offer – independent businesses, plenty of book stores, antique shops, services and some long-standing brick and mortar restaurants. The more traffic the community receives and retains, the more likely we can get someone to take a chance on the area and bring another fixed dining option to the community (a good building, with minimal build out costs and the ability to serve alcohol (high profit margin to serving cost) would clench the deal).
So where does mobile food fit in? It does the best where options are limited and demand is high, that area is Clintonville, north of Weber Road along Indianola and that is why we see the growth of the mobile options in the area. Surveys of residents over the years have consistently listed the need for more and better restaurants as needed amenities for the area. As long as Clintonville has a demand and no new brick and mortar options to fill the need, carts, trailers and trucks will look for the sweet spots to serve breakfast, lunch and dinner. The popularity of these mobile vendors in 2012 is no fluke or “jumping of the shark” with a here today, gone tomorrow fad. This new incantation of meals of wheels is serving a need just like the food carts of the 1920′s and 30′s did – independent business people taking the resources they can acquire to meet the needs of people who have limited food options. It is Deja Vu with a spin. If you the live in the area, come out as often as you can to support and grow your dining options. If you live outside the area, please come visit to help a small business and a small community and to prove that this can work elsewhere in our city. If you (mobile food vendor) park it they will (hopefully) come. If you serve it, they will eat (if it is good and reasonably priced).