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What are your 12 Eateries and Drinkeries for Covid Christmas?

Posted by cmh gourmand on December 13, 2020

On the first day of Covid, Corona gave to us…. the equivalent of a tactical nuclear strike to our local food and beverage industry.

I can still recall the early days of March vividly – everything became very surreal super-fast. I remember sitting at the bar of Rockmill Tavern talking to the manager about what the future might bring. We had just cancelled our Brewery District Walking tour for the foreseeable future, and called off our guide training for the day.  I was hanging out to pass out historic beer bottles to my team as a thank you for their work the previous year. When I left, and looked out at Front Street and across the Brewery District to an empty neighborhood I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach.  That feeling never left.  At the time, we hoped that things would be better by summer and PPE would keep some places going until then. Well, you know the story from there.

This time of year is typically the bread and butter season for restaurants – holiday parties, family gatherings, corporate gift giving, events, etc. Such is not the case for this December. You have probably heard dire / grim numbers about how many restaurants have closed so far this year, we know at least 100,000 have already closed nationwide. Looking at the end of this year to the first quarter of 2021, reliable data suggests about 30% of existing restaurants will 86 their dreams and shut down. This might be an optimistic estimate, independent local restaurants will see a higher rate than that. Typically January and February are the dead zone of sales. So after a lean year with no icing on the cake in December, the light at the end of the 2021 tunnel is dim until March at the earliest when patio season may return.  Right now our eateries and “drinkeries” are the Tiny Tim of local businesses and need much more than a lump of coal to persist.  

For our local breweries and distilleries – the glass is not looking one half empty or even an eighth full. The better analogy is trying to scrape enough peanut butter out of the bottom of the jar to make a sandwich. These businesses do best when you visit them on site so they can reap the rewards of selling you pints and cocktails directly instead of the cut they get from retail sales at bars and stores. If you are a local beer fan you know our taprooms are now lightly visited, those with patios have lost that option for the winter and for those that package their product there is a looming shortage of aluminum cans for most except the the large players like Budweiser.  Bars like St. James Tavern and Little Rock have shut down until Covid goes away.  A few breweries and taprooms are very likely to make their last call in early 2021. 

If what you have read here so far and elsewhere seems dire, I have bad news for you, it is worse that what you have seen in the media. The bulk of my friends are brewers, distillers, taproom bartenders, restaurant owners, and such. In my day to day interactions with them the situation is greater that what we see on the surface. Salaries have been slashed, rent renegotiated or unpaid, staff laid off, any corner that can be cut, was slashed months ago, bills are piling up, and many are thinking long and hard about their future not knowing what next year brings. For many what the ledgers look like at the end of this month will determine their path forward. These folks are my extended family and I feel like a war time medic without a medical kit. Most are putting on a good face and going day by day however the hope of a last minute PPE or other stimulus funding funneling down the chimney for a last minute save is long gone.  Stimulus tends to go to big business and rarely trickles down to a small business.  In my life-time we have bailed out Savings and Loans, the Auto Industry and Big Banks – all of these businesses made bad decisions in good times and did not have to pay the price for their greed.  Our Mom and Pop businesses were hit hard by a once in a hundred years pandemic that has knocked them to the ground.  They don’t have the lobbying power to get the help they need.  

So what can we do? Money is tight for many of us, so much so that today one on four children in Columbus is not sure where their next meal will come from. We can still do something. If you don’t have the deep pockets to do carry out every day there are still ways to contribute. You can like social media posts and share them with your network. If you forgot to write a glowing review of your favorite spot, now is the time to do it. If you are still stumped for holidays gifts – give the gift of gift certificates. If you have an old gift certificate from a local, independent restaurant consider “losing it” and make not using it a gift to the restaurant when you order without using it. When you can, tip well.  While many have shifted to delivery services for their meals keep in mind that delivery costs more that what you pay in fees, most delivery services charge the restaurant as well, often that fee is most of their profit – they would rather sell you a meal and break even than have you take your business somewhere else and not come back.  So when you can, and where a business does a good job of safe / contactless pick up, – go get your order and get out of the house. 

Small businesses do matter.  I wish I could eloquently pitch to you the gravity of the situation in the style of George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life….  it is these small businesses that are taking the hit and (“Mr. Potters of Columbus”) these restaurants and other businesses I’m talking about… “they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community”.  These are the business that support little league teams, that give a starving artist a place to work, that add character to our neighborhoods and tend to buy local from farmers, suppliers and etc. 

For your twelve days of Covid Christmas pick a different restaurant, brewery or distillery to support each of your twelve days in any way you can.  Even sharing this post can help, if you want to share this to twelve people even better. 

If you are stumped in filling in your list of twelve shoot me an e-mail because I have hundreds more suggestions I have not covered here, these are the first twelve that came to my mind in no particular order. 

Barley’s

Was one of the original micro breweries in town. If you are a beer person in Central Ohio you have hoisted a beer at Barleys.  Covid hit Barley’s harder than most.  Their location, directly across from the main entrance of the convention center was a boon since the center opened….but conventions are gone.  Riots scared others away from Downtown.  The brewpub is running on skeleton crew with long time manager Jason cooking, cleaning, hauling out spent grain and much more seven days per week.  The food and beer have always been good.  The business did a great job redoing their space to be socially distant and they do a fine job on curbside pick up.  If none of this calls you to action, them do it for Angelo, dang it!  

Smokehouse Brewing

Lenny Kolada at Smokehouse Brewing had guided the business through over twenty fives years of highs and lows. This year is different.  This year is the flatline on an EKG looking for that first bump up.  His son Alex juggled brewing and kitchen duties for months.  If you want a perspective of life on the frontlines check out the restaurant’s Instagram account Smokeandbrew for a day by day take – as I type. this is Day 275.  The wings are good, the beer is great in person or in a growler and they have a gift card special through the end of December. 

451 Spirits 

Chad at 451 has a very different take on just about everything.  His spirits are unique and carefully crafted. This little gem is hidden behind a United Dairy Farmers, in a former car wash building, in Clintonville and if all that makes sense to you and you have not been to 451, what is your problem? They (Chad) does a great job on curbside pickup.  And just before Thanksgiving Chad broke ( as in really shattered) his right arm requiring a massive surgery….and his is still distilling away.  Buying some of his spirits in the holiday spirit would give him some cheer. 

Rockmill Tavern 

Rockmill Tavern is fighting the good fight in the Brewery District.  In fact, they are about the last food business standing in their section of the neighborhood.  They do a good job with their online ordering system and curbside pick up is easy via Liberty Street. Matt Barbee and the Rockmill team have more than just Covid to contend with. The Brewery District was on an upswing going into 2020 with plenty of new businesses and energy in the area. Covid took the steam of that economic engine.  Rockmill is also in between a rock and a hard place with the road construction and other projects churning around it.  It is worth the effort to order from Rockmill and they have some killer beer to boot. 

Echo Spirits

Timing has frequently been against the gang at Echo Spirits but they aways press on. They opened their bar to the public on December 10th. The bar offers several unique and flavorful cocktails. Like our other local distillers they quickly shifted to making sanitizer when Covid kicked in. They would like you to drop in so they don’t get kicked to the curb. The tagline of Echo Spirits is know your distiller so -> HERE <- you go.

TAT Ristorante

The Corrova family has operated TAT Ristorante since 1929. The location has changed over the decades but not the family that runs it. Jimmy Corrova has been a fixture at the restaurant since he was 8 years old. The restaurant is his pride and joy but due to health problems and protocols he has not been at TAT since March. One good reason to crush the corona virus is to get Jimmy Corrova back in his favorite booth to greet guests when they start to pour through the doors again. In the meantime, they do have distanced dine in service and do a great job on curbside pick up. Their food is very good and their pizza is among my favorite in the city. Let’s help them sustain to 2029 so they can ring in their first century of business with a bang.

Gatto’s Pizza

Gatto’s is not the oldest pizzeria in town, but it is really close. It is the oldest pizza place in the same location run by the same family since 1952. They make their own sausage and they have made some changes for 2020 – Gatto’s takes credit cards, engages in social media and for those outside of Clintonville you can order via Doordash and Grubhub (but please just go pick it up).

Preston’s

A lot of people think Preston’s makes the best burger in town and they are right. However, many more have never tried Preston’s and that needs to change. I love Preston’s but I LOVE the guy that crafted the concept, Mr. Matt Heaggans. I have followed his career since the day he came back to Columbus and I can tell you no one is as obsessed with getting everything “just right” than Matt. This is a tough time to open a new location and the North Market is not as busy as it once was but for the sake of an excellent burger, we need to treat Preston’s like a national treasure so we can keep eating their tasty burgers, chicken sandwiches and even more the special dinners created for pick up that are just now starting to come from Matt’s spell book of recipes.

Columbus Food Adventures Trust Fall Dinners and Gift Baskets

What do you do when your award winning food tour company can’t do (many) tours for the foreseeable future? You pivot as fast as you can to meal delivery with a twist. The company’s Trustfall dinners deliver a hearty meal for two from restaurant the diners have probably never heard of. You place your trust in them that they will select a meal that you will enjoy. In the process, you avoid the mundane rut of eating the same euro-centric food day after day. In the process Columbus Food Adventures has helped support 60+ local businesses by selling food and gaining exposure to new customers. Their themed gift baskets do the same – showcasing the best foods of the city.

Ray Ray’s

Everyone knows Ray Ray’s…..well almost everyone but that was not always the case. No so long ago, in parking lot in Clintonville no one knew Ray Ray’s BBQ. Jamie “Ray Ray” Anderson is not a man of many words but he can let his food do the talking. Jamie is passionate about his craft, so much so that he raises his own hogs. Chef Bill Glover came on board this fall. The two have known each other for about a decade and together they have showcased the best of Columbus to the James Beard crowd. Let’s keep this dynamic duo together by keeping this empire going so we can all have nice things AC (After Covid).

Lavash Cafe

Nasir Latif is no stranger to the restaurant business and in the 1980’s he brought one of the first ethnic restaurants to Columbus. He came back to Columbus to bring us Lavash Cafe in Clintonville. The location does an excellent job with curbside pick up. Even more importantly the menu is authentic, the quality is exceptional and price is reasonable. Lavash is a type of bread common to the MiddleEastern region of the world and the lavash and pita breads mades in house are worth a trip on their own.

Hounddogs (Pizza for the People)

The hallowed halls of Hounddogs have been quieted by covid but the iconic Old North Columbus hangout still offers pick up and delivery of their beloved pizzas both earlier and later in the day than most pizza purveyors. On my last visit I saw signs of interior construction / redesign in the works which could indicate that owner and craftsman Jeff Stewart is working on some distanced solutions to get people back inside.

These are twelve of countless local restaurants, breweries and the like you can support and we wrap up the year and try to regift it to the trash can. If you want to jump on this band wagon – share this with your friends. If you are a social media user consider tagging you works in this task with #My12RestaurantsofCovid (sorry everyone else – breweries, distilleries, farmers markets, The Hills and Weilands, there just is so long a hashtag can be).

For some more name dropping here are twelve more places you can rotate in if you are stumped for twelve of your own: Endeavor Brewing, Lineage Brewing, Iaconos Pizza, Teritas Pizza, Emelio’s Pizza, Bexley Pizza Plus, Mama Mimi’s Pizza, Ange’s Pizza, Studio 35, Punk Pigs, Portia’s Diner and Hisham’s Food Truck.

These are tough times. Do what you can, when you can. If you can be kind to someone please make that choice. This pandemic is a war and we can only win it if we stick together (at a distance).

Posted in Behind the Counter, Food For Thought, Gastronomic Stimulus | Leave a Comment »

Ezzo Sausage Company – Too Cool for School

Posted by cmh gourmand on March 27, 2018

Ezzo Sausage Company is a pretty big deal. And chances are, you did not even know it existed. While the company was founded in Columbus in 1978, the extended family had experience encasing meats well before that. One of the founders, Bill Ezzo, used his OSU football playing experiences to land accounts and grow the company. The company has experienced many of changes since their origin. The biggest development was just a few years ago, when Ezzo moved into a new state of the art facility. The company has long been considered one of top makers of premium, artisan pepperoni but the new digs have helped them expand and grow to an even higher level. Their products are distributed in over a dozen states and all over the world. A prized pepperoni at most top pizza shops is their GiAntonio brand. In the old days, a person like me could pop into the former plant and try to buy some product, today, you can only get their pepperoni and other products from distributors. Local places that use their “Old World” pepperoni include Iacono’s, Massey’s and many of my top twenty pizza purveyors in Columbus. A lot has changed since the early days of the business. One thing that has not changed which is the key to Ezzo’s longevity in a highly competitive business, is Ezzo has never sacrificed quality.

Earlier this year I became aware of an opportunity to tour the company, so I contacted COO Mitch LeBrasseur and made my pitch to come take a look at the place. He was kind enough to cater to me and a small number of guests. My motley grew of meat heads included a brewery owner, a food truck chef, a local baker, two pizza shop managers and a (mad) scientist. At the end all were very impressed by the operation as well as the depth of knowledge Mitch had to share. The (mad) scientist proclaimed it was “the best day ever”, that is saying a lot.

Here are a few of the things I learned from Mitch. Many of their products are Halal certified and are shipped all over the world. Their all beef pepperoni is very popular in Musilim countries since it is both Halal and really good. Large school districts have been gobbling up their product since it allows them to meet the dietary requirements of students with limitations on eating pork.

There are many things that set Ezzo apart from their many (and much bigger) competitors. Once is a concept called least cost formulation. In a nutshell (although the full story is much more complex), the meat industry is not a matter a dollars but of cents. Meat prices fluctuate like any commodity and as a response, many companies work hard to micromanage their recipes to adjust to what meats are the best value on any given day so that they can maintain a consistent price point of their product. This can have some effects on consistency. Ezzo, does not do this, they stick with their core recipes and adjust pricing quarterly instead of their recipes daily. The end result is their product is several cents per pound more expensive than their competitors but by most objective benchmarks much better in quality and taste. The big benefit for pepperoni purists is a consistent product box per box and pizza per pizza. I also learned more about pink slime that I ever thought I needed to know. The good news, Ezzo does not use pink slime. I also learned an industry trick on hiding pink slime – paprika. I will never look at an ingredient list the same way again. Last (for this post, but definitely not least) pepperoni is a fermented product. It never dawned on me before but learning about the entire process from start to finish made me appreciate a good slice of pepperoni even more. Mitch walked us through the whole plant and taught us about every step in the production of Ezzo’s prized pepperoni.

As a side note, as some of you know I am a tour guide and as a few of that subset know, I run a pizza tour so I was motivated to learn more about one of my talking points. I’ve been on all types of food tours all over the world (a few favorites: Cadbury in New Zealand, Swan Brewing in Australia and Vienna Beef in Chicago) and while the mainstream public might not be as enthused as I was about the depth of information covered by Mitch in his tour, my band ate it up. I thought Mitch gave one of the best tours I’ve been on. A few things stood out about Mitch. First was his focus on customer service even though most of his career has been in the production side of the business. I was also impressed by the loyalty of the group he called his Meat Gypsies, people from companies all over the country that left their jobs and homes to come to Columbus to build this plant with him. If there was ever an all star team for pepperoni production, Ezzo would sweep the series with their group.

Learn more about Ezzo and read a few good articles below:
Ezzo Sausage Company

Posted in Behind the Counter, pizza | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

Food Truck Basics: How to Make a Good Start on Wheels

Posted by cmh gourmand on August 9, 2015

I was recently casing out a new food truck and found myself going through a mental check list of what they were doing right. Using the criteria I established, I determined that this truck, which just launched a month ago has what it takes to (probably) survive the first critical year of business.

This litmus test was developed from several different sources and experiences:

1) A life time of eating
2) Eating from almost every food truck in the city and writing about many of them
3) Graduating from the Art of The Cart course at Hot Dog University in Chicago
4) Working customer service (in emergency situations) on several trucks
5) Two years of service at Knights Ice Cream as a worker, supervisor and working the mobile ice cream truck
6) Two years as coordinator at the Food Fort, an incubator for food based businesses
7) Hours and hours of conversations with Jim Pashovich, the owner of Pitabilities
8) Hours of “philosophy” sessions with the owners of OH!Burgers, Ajumama and Flattop Pizza

So here is what I and looking for in a new mobile food business:

1) Distance Presentation: Customers decide to eat from fifty feet away, so your truck “wrap” or graphics need to convey what type of food you serve. It you can’t do that, it should at least be clear that your mobile operation serves food and is not a delivery truck or backdrop for graffiti. Smart operators will all make sure they have something aromatic on the grill (onions, cinnamon, etc,) that will lure in customers by smell.

2) Your Name gets customers in the Game: Just like the look of the truck, the name of the operations should very quickly let customers figure out what type of food is served. If the name does not spell that out clearly, then you need to have a very short tag line underneath that sums it up in a few words. And example of a bad name choice, Stacy’s 5 Dollar Hollar. The name has scared more customers away that the promise of a bargain priced meal.

3) Uniform(ity)((s)) does not equal conformity: While the goal of most mobile food operators is to showcase their individuality and uniqueness and to shed the images and stigma of mass-produced food. While many may not like it, it is still critical to stay on brand and have some type of uniform or uniformity to what staff wear. While, this does not have to look like a bad fast food parody, it still is worthwhile to make sure people can tell any member of your team from a customer. It can be a hat, T-shirt and/or apron to stay on brand with a uniform and show subconsciously that you are a team.

4) Come early and stay til the end: As a past food truck event planner and frequent customer, there are / were certain trucks I knew would be late and not ready to serve at game time. That not only sets a bad tone for developing a relationship with a site or event, it also costs customers. If your hours are posted as 5 pm and you are not ready to serve, you lose those customers that showed up on time to beat the crowd. And those customers are your most important customers to nurture because their enthusiasm could be channeled into repeat business and free brand ambassadorship, instead they feel their extra effort was dismissed. The same applies to leaving early. Yes, sometimes a place is a dud or the weather sucks or whatever, but when you pack up early without a very good reason then the image of your business is that you don’t keep commitments.

5) Price point is the point: I’ve known some great mobile operators that made incredible food, but they lost customers because they charged $15 for a sandwich. While quality is important even more so is price and at a deeper level, value. While food quality for a truck is typically as good or better than an average restaurant, customers do not expect as much or more for a mobile meal than a sit down meal. As a general rule, the average person will pay up to $6 or $7 for a lunch and $8 to $12 for a dinner. And if they like the food and you can meet that price, the customer will come back. And if you struggle to meet that price point then add perceived value. Make the entrée look like a meal by adding a small 3-4 bite garnish to the main entrée to make it appear to be more (than what it is).

6) Be Clean in All Things at All Times: Cleanliness is beyond Godliness in mobile food. There is still some of the street meat stigma to food on wheels. Your truck needs to look clean from the outside and inside. Your team needs to have clean(ish) clothes and you should go out of your way to show off your dedication to food safety with people changing latex gloves, cleaning inside when not serving and keeping the profanity to a minimum too. In the early days of fast food (White Castle) projecting cleanliness was the most important thing to do to get customers to your door and today, you need to do the same to get them to your window.

7) Customer Service starts before the order and continues after:: Greet customers, answer stupid questions, occasionally offer samples but also make sure you have printed menus people can look at or take with them, have plenty of trash cans and keep them from overflowing, make sure to go orders are packaged to survive the journey and offer to correct any real or perceived failing with a smile on your face. Returning all phone calls, answering all e-mails and listening to feedback comes into play here as well. And the 1000 other things related to customer service have to be executed with excellence every time.

As a small business owner as well, I have seen businesses do the above and bomb, but their odds of success are pretty high if they can execute these “surface” elements of mobile food. Behind the scenes the biggest challenge for most mobile operators is maintaining true food costs to under 30% of operating expenses and paying attention to the business part of the business with the same intensity as the passion for the food.

While the above are important, in any small business there are 100 things you need to do everyday to do well and stay profitable, but in mobile food, if you can knock these seven things out of the park at the beginning your chances of seeing your second year are strong.

Posted in Behind the Counter, Mobile Food | 1 Comment »

Mad About Making Cider at Mad Moon Cider!

Posted by cmh gourmand on July 29, 2015

One of the best things about Columbus Brew Adventures is the diversity of people I get to work with and learn from. Several months ago I met Peter Moon, one of the owners of Mad Moon Cider at a tasting. After trying his products and hearing a bit of his story, I knew I had to get some tour groups into his space. I tested out the concept with private groups over the winter and each trip there was a crowd favorite. At each tour, I picked up a bit more of his story while meeting his wife and cider making partner Sally. I really became hooked on the craft of craft cider.

When Peter mentioned that they sometimes need volunteers to help with cider production I promptly volunteered. Then the stars and the Moons aligned and I had my opportunity to report for duty. Our team was small – the two Moons, myself and a fella I think may one day become a folk legend, Vic. I’ll digress about Vic for a bit. Vic has been there, done that, survived countless mishaps and misadventures and somehow thrives on doing great acts of endurance and physical strength – most of this seems to be fueled by a daily regimen of honey, apple cider vinegar and some assorted juices. As I observed at the end of my service, if Vic had lived in an earlier era, we would today measure speed and production on Vicpower, not horsepower.

Anyway, step one of cider production is the sort apples. In our case, we had some multiple 800 lb crates of apples that had been stored over the winter. While these apples make great cider, they also require significantly more sorting than other batches. If you have heard the phrase “one bad apple spoils the bunch”, it is true and we had to search for them among 1000’s of apples in each crate.

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As the apples get sorted into milk crates and buckets, the apples go down a chute of a device that looks a lot like a chipper to get mashed into apple pulp.

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The pulp gets wheeled over to get crafted into sheets of “cheese”. The job of the cheese maker is to take scoops of pulp, and using a plastic mold and cheesecloth, create squares of apple pulp to stack on other squares to slide down to a press to squash (with 1000’s of pounds of pressure) to create juice.

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Once the press gets going, the juice really starts to flow (down a long open trough) to a bin. Once the bin gets to a certain height, a pump gets switched on to transfer the juice to a holding tank (during my tenure I think we made about 300 gallons over four hours). After the pressing, the square molds are unfolded to start the “cheese” making process again. After the pulp is mashed, the residual looks like a very dry energy bar made by an eighties era hippy.

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All in all, I was a great afternoon. If you are familiar with the story of John Henry (there is a statue down where my kin reside) if there was a production contest between a machine, Vic and myself, Vic would beat the combined efforts of the machine and my human self. It was hard, messy work but worth the effort. You can see my work shirt below….taken near the beginning of my labors.

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For my efforts I was rewarded with good company, a nice lunch and plenty of cider to take home.

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Others things I could do in the future include bottling and capping, using the equipment you see below. The capper is pretty amazing, it was made out of a broken drill press Peter picked up for $50 (worth more than that by weight alone at a scrap yard) and mounted with a special capping mold he found on the internet. The MacGuyvered tool works like a charm. In fact much of what is in the cider house is customer made, crafted, reverse engineered and conjured up which is the nature of any small start up business. Mad Moon has a lot a stories to share and these are just a few of them. (FYI: the next Columbus Brew Adventures Tour to Mad Moon is August 30th).

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Posted in Behind the Counter, beverages, culinary knowledge, Locally Sourced | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Hello Mr. Chips: OH! Chips and Brian “Thor” Thornton

Posted by cmh gourmand on July 20, 2014

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Have you ever been present at the moment of something big? Were you one of 20 people who saw Nirvana play at Staches during a blizzard when they toured from a van or did you see the rise of the Phoenix that is LeaderOptics? For me, as a compulsively creative idea brainstormer, there are few things better than seeing the light bulb go off in someone’s head and then watch what happens. I’ve been following the growth of OH! Chips for almost three years now and it has been a fun ride.

I met Brian “Thor” Thornton when I was working for a food business incubator called Food Fort. Brian was of the mind to buy a food truck and he was just wrapping up his business plan when I met him. At the time (fall 2011) there was only one truck on the market, The Hot Pita Food Truck (RIP) which I had looked over and did not think much of what I saw. That did not dissuade Thor, he saw where he could make adjustments and modifications and even though the truck was far from perfect it was the vehicle he could use to launch his business and he was ready to go. So in typical Thor fashion, the gap between thought and action was nearly unmeasurable.

Once he had the truck in development, he started working on recipes and that is where I came to know him much better. I am certain for the first two years of his OH! Burger food truck, I sampled any menu item he developed. And he and I talked about, debated and conceived a lot of neat new concepts along the way (The $1 Dollar Hollar Hot Dog sandwich for a late night menu comes to mind – Thor thought better of that) that were just too wrong to unleash on the public. I even had Thor talked in to donuts for a while.

There were a lot of adventures along the way, I wrote about one of them (see the link below).

It Takes a Village to Serve an OH! Burger.

Between burgers, Thor was always working on a tweaking recipes for potato and sweet potato chips. I’m sure on the fist couple months of OH! Burgers I sampled a slightly different version of a chip (potato type, different oils, etc.) It was always in Thor’s vision for the chips to be a signature item on his truck menu (they were and still are) but I don’t think a week went by where he did not tweak or experiment with the process in some way. I was there the day he decided he had finally made the perfect chip and having tried one, I was inclined to agree with him. The popularity of the chips was instant and sometimes overshadowed his own burgers. So in typical Thor fashion the process of thought to action to make the chips their own business was put on fast forward in a flash.

So let’s bring you up to date. It has been a big year for OH! Chips. With a lot of hard work and a small business loan, he secured a space for a factory in a former food cart commissary (appropriately enough) and may have the space in full production around Labor Day. In the meantime he has continued to labor on his food truck and the factory and well as all of the many things that need to happen between making batches of chips to grow the business from 100’s of bags to 1000’s.

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The business began to expand with partnering by other food trucks to sell his chips both as is and with customized spice mixes. Here is where you can find the chips now.

Actual Brewing Company
Ajumana (Food Truck)
Blu Olive (Food Truck)
Catawba Island Brewing Company
Four String Brewing Company
Kenny’s Meat Wagon (Food Cart)
North High Brewing Company
The Ohio Tap Room
Pam’s Market Popcorn
Strongwater Food and Spirits

You may have noticed a trend in there – Breweries and beer based businesses. You have read here before that craft breweries and food trucks are the perfect pairing. That partnership potential applies to other small businesses as well. Taprooms benefit from good food and great chips go well with beer.

What makes these potato chips so good? A couple little things add up to a big difference in taste and quality. OH! Chips are hand crafted in small batches. The potatoes are thinly sliced then blanched before being fried in peanut oil then lightly seasoned with sea salt. This might not sound like much but the reason why so many people crave these chips is because the extra labor that goes into the chips and because they are fresh.

I think there has been a pent-up demand for good potato chips. Many years ago, Ohio had many more local potato chips companies than today but most were eaten up by the big guys. If you have friends from other parts of Ohio you may be familiar with names like Mike-Sells, Grippos, Ballreich’s, Gold n Crisp, Jones, Mumford’s, Tastee, Schearer’s, Wagner’s and more. I remember Buckeye Potato Chips as a kid and if my memory serves me right, they seemed to be the only potato chip in the world. We still have a lot of Ohio based chips to choose from today and our heritage supports that. While “Saratoga Chips” were invented in New York, it was Ohio where they went big fast. Ohio was home to the first trade association of potato chip makers. So with that in our collective DNA, it is the priming of the pump to want to eat and support the first new local potato chip maker in my lifetime. I’m glad I was around to see OH! Chips get born and I look forward to watching the company mature.

If all goes to plan, by the end of the year you will see the chips some more locations (probably Weilands). In the meantime find them (or ask for them) at a local brewery, The Ohio Tap Room or select food trucks while we wait for more of a good thing.

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Leftovers: F. Scott Francis Interview Outakes

Posted by cmh gourmand on June 28, 2014

The Summer issue of Stock and Barrel has a story I wrote about the Johnny Appleseed of Columbus Brewing, F. Scott Francis, here is the -> LINK. It was a real joy to get to know Scott and get to know more about his brewing life.

As part of the interview, I asked him to answer some questions as a sidebar to the story, I have that “bonus” posted below. I’m looking forward to learning about and maybe writing about some of our other pioneers in town like Victor Ecimovich who brought back the Hoster name in the late 1980’s.

A serving of craft beer wisdom from F. Scott Francis.

On the current movement to raise the alcohol by volume (ABV) limit to 21%.

Raising the limit to 21% is worth pursuing but other recent developments have helped local breweries more. Going to 6% was very important; it allowed brewers to brew out of a narrow range of styles. The progression to 12% allowed many new beers to come into the state and allowed local brewers the freedom to brew a much wider range of styles such as Russian Imperial Stouts. The Taproom law changes of a few years ago were also very important. As for a 21% ABV beer, those are much more challenging to brew, requiring a lot more yeast and specialty ingredients and in the end are not very profitable or sustainable for a brewing business.

Advice for budding brewery owners:

Having money for a lot of new equipment does not equate a successful brewery. If you have to manage your resources spend a little more on the brewer, which will give you a better chance of creating beer that is appealing to your intended customers. Don’t name your beers before you brew them (which can type cast them). Name the beer after you create it and taste it.

Advice for new home brewers

The first thing I tell people is to use a good quality yeast. Also have your primary fermenter surrounded by water, which will help to control the heat. A lot of heat is generated in the first few days of fermenting so controlling the heat will keep the yeast from racing. If you have time and space, do two batches exactly the same but finish one with your fermenter surrounded by water and the other without the water. You will be amazed at how different the two will taste. Talk to as many experienced home brewers as you can before you immerse yourself on Internet brewing sites.

Difference between brewing in the 1990s and brewing in 2014.

In the early days the challenge was getting people to try the beer. Today you have a big cross-section of customers of all ages and all levels of craft beer knowledge who are more willing to try new beers. Customers want flavor. Making beer that people want to buy is harder than making a beer style that is technically correct and consistent. Because you made it right does mean it will taste the way the customer expects it or wants it.

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Brewed Awakening

Posted by cmh gourmand on October 7, 2013

So what have I been up to you might ask? Well, I moved back to a buzz cut, finally conceding that I have more head than hair now. I neglected to mention that I won a Vendy Award and last and very much not least have you heard about Columbus Brew Adventures.

Brewed awakenings

I have often immersed myself in a subject to learn more about it. I became fascinated with Australia so I got myself there six times for a total of 4 1/2 months, visited all the states and territories and make several lifelong friends in the process. Then I wanted to get a job at OCLC and improve my research skills for writing so I earned a Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science….well, I did become a better researcher. And as you readers know, a few other things caught my attention: donuts, pizza, Food Trucks and such.

And now…..Beer and Business.

Partnering with (and learning a lot, every day) Bethia and Andy from Columbus Food Adventures we have been working on and since September 7th running beer tours. There have been countless meetings with brewers throughout the area. Even more e-mails and phone calls. There has been a good amount of time “product” testing as well. The brewing community is a great group of people – passionate about their craft and growing a craft beer culture in our city. I am honored to be able to work with these business owners and immersing myself into their culture. I am learning about more beer and myself every day.

Our downtown brewery tour has been very popular. We explore four breweries and even through I have done my research, I learn something new from each place we visit and each brewer we work with every time I guide a tour. We have also run a tour out to Licking County to visit Brews Cafe, Granville Brewing, Homestead Beer Company and Buckeye Lake Brewery. We made a run to Rockmill Brewery, Dancing Tree Distillery and Jackie O’s in Athens. As fun as that tour was, I was amazed that a couple drove in from Dayton to join us for a multiple hour tour and then drive back home. We are adding more tours this month to explore the breweries of Grandview and our local distilleries. Other ideas are fermenting as well. Pizza and Beer sound good? Maybe a progressive tour of a league of restaurants?

And of course, our tours include food to go with the beer. As you can guess, we take that part of the tour pretty seriously too. As for our beer tourists, each group has been fun to guide around. From craft beer neophytes, to home brewers and beer experts everyone has enjoyed the tours, tried beers they might not have tried before and even at places they might have visited on their own, taken something away they would not have without being on the tour. We learn something at each brewery be it history, how ingredients influence the brewing process, or sampling a beer flight that showcases twenty years of microbrewing in Columbus. In every case, I guests leave wanting to explore even more and go back to try these places again.

In the process I have learned to drive a 14 passenger van, initially felt like a freshman at Food Tour University, lost the company cell phone (which was one of the top 13 worst days of my life), and every day found myself nudged further out of my comfort zone. While learning I have found that there is so much more to learn, I guess that makes sense, beer has been around since the 5th century BC. I knew a good deal about beer before I walked down this road. Now that I jumped into the brewing culture of Columbus I find myself in the catbird seat observing something I believe is going to become a big part of the character of Columbus, a craft beer and distilling culture that will earn a lot respect in the industry. Columbus Brew Adventures is exactly that, an adventure. Care to join us on one?

Posted in beer, Behind the Counter, beverages, cocktails, Food For Thought, Gastronomic Stimulus | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Profiles in Food: Mikegyver!

Posted by cmh gourmand on April 28, 2013

If there is something wrong in your food truck world, who you gonna call? MikeGyver!

Who is this Mikegyver and why he is respected more than Chuck Norris and MacGyver combined? Read on.

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Mikegyver, aka Tyvek, Metal Mike and Bearded Mike is known in other parts of the world as Mike Lauletta. He first came to the attention of the mobile food community while picking up some hours at Dinin’ Hall where he was known as Dinin’ Hall Mike. This was a convenient gig for him because he uses studio space at 400 West Rich so in between creating metal works, crafting Rube Goldberg style devices and working on various artistic outreach projects, he could hop over to Dinin’ Hall to help out and make a bit of spending money.

I interviewed Mike to find out how he became a mobile food icon.

“I got my start on a food truck from Laura Lee, chef/owner of Ajumama. We met at Dinin’ Hall and she needed some part-time help on her truck. I have a lot of experience cooking in restaurants, everything from steak houses to authentic Louisiana Creole.” After working on Ajumama, Mike started to work with other food trucks based at The Food Fort including OH! Burgers and That Food Truck. In addition to cooking and working the window, Mike has also helped clean out trucks, repaired damaged equipment and assisted with updates and modifications to design. In between that, he also started picking up some hours working with a caterer based there. There are countless Mike’s involved in the Columbus Mobile Food scene so to keep this Mike straight from Pizza Mike, Mikey’s, Mike and Other Mike from Flattop Pizza, Mike G and countless others….Mike was initially known as Bearded Mike. As his skills became more renown and in spite of the fact that he does not have duct tape holstered to him, an astute individual started to call him Mikegyver so the moniker stuck.

So what else does he do? “When I’m not living the dream working on a food truck, I am a sculptor. Mostly work in Cast Metal and Concrete, but no material is off my pallet/palate/palette. I can make anything you can imagine.”

I asked Mikegyver a few questions about what he has observed and learned in the Food Truck world.

Any interesting observations about the Food Truck world?

All I can say is if I had a dollar for every time a food truck owner told me ,” don’t tell anyone else this, but ….”

Any advice for food truck customers based on what you have learned?

Read the whole menu before you ask any questions and of course we take credit cards…. it’s the future.

Any Advice for Food Truck owners based on your experiences?

My advice for truck owners, if you are in it for money quit now. And don’t let anyone push you around. It is your burden/business so be open to advice but do what you want.

Being the hired gun / High Plains Drifter / Lone Ranger of the Food Truck world, if someone needs your services, how do they contact you? Is there a Mikegyver signal like Batman?

If someone would like to contract my services my email is Mikesinside@gmail.com

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Behind The Counter: Feeling The Heat With Pitabilities

Posted by cmh gourmand on March 6, 2012

As you read in the previous post, Yerba Buena was not able to make their debut at the Clintonville Celebrates Columbus Event last Saturday. Here is some back story. The day before I was sweating bullets because Carolina from Yerba Buena e-mailed me about a permitting issue that may keep them out of the game. The city and a good public servant came through and resolved the situation and saved the day. I found out the good news towards the end of the afternoon after working on several contingency plans. I was relieved.

I have worked on and coordinated several events in my day but this was extra important to me. Clintonville is my home and mobile food is my current crusade. I did not think Yerba Buena received a fair shot from a few in my community last year, so I wanted to do something to ring in the new season of mobile food with a bang. I also wanted to show two things: Clintonville does support mobile food and mobile food contributes to our community. Maple Grove Church was willing to host the trucks to supplement their tribute to Columbus history. Mozart’s in Clintonville generously provided 222 free (and very good) cupcakes. That plus little PR push and it looked like the turnout would be big. The event started at noon.

Pitabilities, Yerba Buena and Tatoheads were to report on station at 11:00. I got a call and text from Yerba Buena about 9:45 am letting me know they could not make it due to a generator issue. Considering the events of the previous day, I could only think one thing. SHIT!

I had enough time to jump on every social media platform in my media empire to get the news out and then a very quick shower before heading out the door to arrive at 10:59 am to find Tatoheads and Pitabilities on site and ready to serve. (Insert fist pump here).

I went inside to check in with the event coordinators, did a little outside set up and trotted out to see how things were ten minutes to showtime. Jim Pashovich from Pitabilities informed me that due to unexplainable and unforeseen events he was without staff at the present but he had his third guy scheduled to show up soon.

At this point lines were starting to queue up at both trucks (we were expecting three trucks to deal with the masses, not two). I could only think one thing. SHIT!

Again the purpose of the event was to knock one out of the mobile food park in Clintonville. At this point the count was looking bad, two strikes and no balls. A wiser person might have considered running but I said “Hey Jim do you want me to take a couple orders until the cavalry comes in (note, I was wearing my cowboy hat)”.

Jim was happy to get any help he could get so we went at it with 1.5 employees in a situation which normally have a full team of three. I was going in cold but with some training – Hot Dog U, Person in Charge food safety from the Health Department, a shift at O’Betty’s, 8 years of Comfest wine boothing and 2 years at Knight’s Ice Cream from 1985 to 1987. I could only think one thing. SHIT!

Luckily there was not much time to think. I think we served 65 to 70 people. Two hours later as the line was starting to die down the cavalry did arrive. We we almost out of change, out of some serving wear and an hour still to go. It took a while to get in my grove. I know I messed up two orders – one of you has my card and I did give most of your money back….I hope. As I was taking orders I had a lot on my mind…..how was the Tatoheads doing, where were our reinforcements, was there a Yerba Buena PR crisis that needed to be dealt with but no one could find the event coordinator with the cowboy hat? I had no idea if Clintonville was embracing mobile food this afternoon because we were getting slammed in the truck. Friends and family that showed up seemed to think I was working at Pitabilities for fun….oh no, but I do enjoy the work and the challenge. I was just hoping the dam would not burst. Working in tight quarters, with a deep line and people to serve requires a different state of Zen that I have not had to pull from for a while….but the fine art of dealing with one thing at a time kicked in and we pushed on.

I really felt for Jim, he was running the grill, prepping orders, calling various phone numbers to check status on our reinforcements and trying to train me all at the same time. For a business person making his Clintonville debut and who prides himself on great service and turning customer orders around in five minutes….this was a nightmare. Things were backed up. Neither of us were meeting our own expectations of what we wanted this opportunity to be. But we survived. I can’t tell you how many times we apologized to the line for the speed but it never felt like enough.

I walked off the line about 2:15 when reinforcements showed up. Jim took a ten minute break. Then back at it until 3 pm. I’m told the event went well. I hope those that attended had fun. I promise that it will be even better next time. Daniel from Tatoheads and his crew rocked it and Daniel even come over to check on us and offer to help. I love the spirit of camaraderie and cooperation these mobile fooders have. It is a good lesson to others.

I also learned I can deal with the SHIT factor if I have Jim P. on my six (doing all the work). So at this point I can only think one thing. BRING IT!

Posted in Behind the Counter, culinary misadventure | 1 Comment »

Behind the Counter: Slinging Hot Dogs at O’Betty’s

Posted by cmh gourmand on September 13, 2011

My first job was at Knight’s Ice Cream in Clintonville. I started as a sophomore in high school and left the summer of my senior year. I made $2.85 per hour to begin, my top salary was $3.50. It took a long time to save for a car. The job taught me a lot. A lifelong love of ice cream began. I discovered I liked food…well I obsessively loved it, actually. I observed that a cup filled with ice and pop dumped in a trash is not cool. Since that discovery I never dump anything with liquid in a trash can because I know what it is like to clean up the mess. I found I was not good with down time on the job and would seek out something to do. I never lost the restlessness – but I am trying really hard now. In the winter when it was slow and I was working by myself, I started to experiment with everything we had in the shop – ice cream combinations, Sprite and sherbet shakes, chocolate covered anything, intriguing sandwich combinations and etc. I still engage in some reckless culinary experiments.

The job laid a foundation. I found I was a shy kid that enjoyed interacting with people and getting to know their preferences to make sure they got what they needed. One lady came in every Thursday for a scoop of coffee ice cream. I gave her one on the house after a year of repetition, she was shocked as if she had never been treated before, maybe she had not. Another customer came in every Saturday at 4:45 pm or even closer to the 5 pm switchover. He ordered five milkshakes of various types. It was always busy when he ambled in. The multi-shake request messed up the flow of our shift change. It briefly ticked me off. I discovered he was giving the shakes to his buddies at my favorite hobby shop. I then saw his act as generosity and that changed my mind and my attitude. The work I have enjoyed the most has included a lot of social interaction with new people, an opportunity to be creative in some way and autonomy. I miss that. I need that. The work I enjoyed did not feel like work….I know that is a rare thing for most people. I enjoy finding and making a connection to an idea or a person or at least giving the world something useful or entertaining.

I had micro-bursts of food service over the years. I volunteered for several food events: wine bartender at ComFest for years, my hot dog festivals and chili parties were famous in their day, washing plates at countless events, my Pizza Grand Prix series. Last summer I grilled 100 hot dogs for the masses at the Goodale Park Music Series. I enjoyed educating people about hot dog history and styles as they waited for their order to grill up. I have written about food since 1999 but only from the diners side. I felt an urge to get on the “right” side of the counter.

I’ve been a fan of O’Betty’s in Athens for years and a fan of hot dogs even longer. I came to know owner Bob Satmary over many hot dogs and chats about the Athens food scene. I think O’Betty’s is the best hot dog shop in the state…maybe the Midwest. I needed to balance out my perspective by getting behind the counter again. I asked Bob if I could work pro-bono to get my serving legs back. He said sure, come on down.

I arrived on a Saturday morning at 11:00 am, ready to work. I donned an apron then got the lay of the land behind the counter. The space in the place is small with no room to nudge past each other – single file from the grill to the cash register. My orientation covered how to make the best fries in the Ohio, the secret to serving a tofu dog that is worth eating and with a bit of trial and error how to create the various O’Betty’s hot dog varieties as well as how to redo a few mistakes I made along the way. Bob was a patient and effective teacher.

It was a slow Saturday but we had a few rushes to test the skills I have learned. It was clear I still had a lot to learn but Bob and his number one, soon to tour Europe Rockstar, employee John jumped in when needed and reminded me of the band of brothers teamwork that comes in a restaurant when things get tight. At the end I finally figured out the cuneiform style code O’Betty’s uses on order tickets. I was getting the swing of things and feeling confident “back in the saddle.”

During a couple slow periods I had a chance to speak with a few of the customers. Two guys on scooters from Ann Arbor were traveling around Ohio following places they found on Roadfood. I wrote two of them – O’Betty’s and Starliner Diner. I gave them a list of six places in Columbus for dinner. Another gentleman from Manhattan, currently working in Marietta, sang praises of the Athens and Columbus food scenes. I agreed and gave him a lot more food for thought and consumption in the capital city. I also made him a “Dixie” to go which he felt passed muster. O’Betty’s customers are almost all regulars and become part of the family in a short period of time. Photos of the favorite “family members” can be found on the wall opposite the register.

I did some cleaning and some prep. More hot dogs were grilled and buns steamed. I made one for myself and enjoyed the end result very much. I was told I did pretty well for the first day and had a job if I needed one! Knowledge confirmed: Hot dogs are best held in a hot water bath before grilling, fries are best soaked, blanched, then fried, customer service is the key to any business, when you connect with the customer everything else falls into place. My payment was a cookie and an afternoon of learning about hot dogs as well as rediscovering a lost part of myself. Writing is best and easiest when writing of a subject you love. It is another thing, but good to write about something you do or have done (unless it is something soul sucking). I was back behind the counter. I may be back at O’Betty’s for a shift or two this fall (but not Halloween – sorry Bob). I may be at another restaurant or bakery near you doing the same thing, providing the perspective from the other side.

O’Betty’s Red Hot! Dogs and Sausages
15 West State Street
Athens
740.589.6111

Knight’s Ice Cream
Clintonville – Gone
(torn down in the 1990’s, the site is now a vet’s office)

Posted in Behind the Counter, hot dogs | Tagged: , | 5 Comments »