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Big Ideas: Columbus’ First Street Food Hub

 Tim Lai and Eliza Ho Big Ideas: Columbus’ First Street Food Hub
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It is an invitation to develop Columbus’ first street food hub. For this idea, we’ve given it a working title: Dinin’ Hall. Let us explain what it is.

The concept of Dinin’ Hall came from a simple desire to create a better dining experience for street food. Like many of you, we attended events and festivals and ate many times at food carts and trucks last year. We brought along our little ones for we wanted to expose them to new foods (some of you might know how hard it is to convince kids there are many yummy food out there other than mac n cheese.) It turns out that my kids loved the food as much as we did. Even my son, a picky eater, gave thumbs-up and kept asking for more from his older sister. But wait! I forgot to tell you something: before we had our first bites, we had waited in line at the truck for half an hour to make the order, another half hour to get the food, and ended up eating at the sidewalk, squatting and holding our food dripping.

There must be better ways to enjoy street food, we thought.

Dinin’ Hall, street food brought indoors

Dinin’ Hall can provide possible solutions. Think of it as a food court like in a mall with a centralized dining area. Think of it as a cafe with its kitchen outside. Think of it as an eatery where you can always find street food and sit down to enjoy, regardless of weather. Dinin’ Hall can become Columbus’ first street food hub.

Street food hubs in other cities

One of Portland’s neighborhood food cart pods.

In many cities, similar ideas have been developed and materialized. In Portland, Oregon, arguably the number 1 destination of the world’s best street food, for example, there are places in its downtown and other neighborhoods where food carts congregate as groups in open areas. Food cart pods, as they are called, open daily and provide amenities such as picnic tables covered with umbrellas, portable bathrooms, electricity hook-ups, ATM machines, etc. They have become popular places where locals like to visit and travelers like to seek out for an authentic vibe of the city.

Vision for the food truck trailer park in Lower Greenville.

Comparable settings for food trucks can be found in Austin, Texas, and they are generally known as food truck parks. One of them that will open soon is located in Lower Greenville; it will feature six trailers of different cuisines. Each trailer pays rent for its parking space and they station at the park permanently. The park offers customers access to outdoor seating, a common bathroom, a playground, a dog park, and a neon sign art park. This arrangement reminds us of a permanent version of the Columbus Commons Lunch on the Lawn every Wednesday in the past summer.

Columbus First Street Food Hub

Dinin’ Hall features a centralized dining area and ordering system.

So, what can Dinin’ Hall bring to Columbus’ booming street food scene? Primarily, it is an indoor café that serves street food all day. It is about creating a new dining experience of street food. At Dinin’ Hall, menu changes daily, depending on the participating vendors— a combination of three trucks and carts can make a good start. With vendors rotating regularly, you can always find something new to try each time you visit. In addition to the street food variety, Dinin’ Hall is also about a streamline ordering system and transaction processes. When entering Dinin’ Hall, you approach the cash wrap to make order and buy drinks. All payments are processed electronically through Square. After making orders, you can find seating and pick out a complimentary magazine to read while you wait. Momentarily, servers will bring the freshly made food right to you from your favorite vendors. With communal tables and benches as a focal point, Dinin’ Hall aims for an urban dining experience. It is where street food brings people together, building foodie and creative communities.

A Win-Win for Food Vendors and Landlords

From a business perspective, Dinin’ Hall presents opportunities for food trucks and carts who want to maintain mobility and flexibility. Vendors can try Dinin’ Hall’s location, starting with once a week to see if it works out before making longer-term commitment. This way, these vendors are not locked in leases like those at the Austin trailer food park situation mentioned above. While this is favorable to street food vendors, what about the landlords?

Ideal locations for Dinin’ Hall are vacant storefronts that come with sizable parking lots. Since vacancies are not generating revenues, an innovative establishment like Dinin’ Hall can provide the landlord an income stream as well as publicity of the property.

Other positive impacts

Dinin’ Hall can bring affordable food to underserved neighborhoods where residents and workers have no walkable access to cafes and restaurants. Filling in this niche, Dinin’ Hall can help revitalize some struggling areas. Not only does it help feed the locals, it also attracts people from outside, bringing positive energy to the neighborhood and benefit communities.

If Dinin’ Hall can happen in Columbus, which neighborhoods would you like to see it in?

Dinin’ Hall mock-up seen at OSU Urban Arts Space

Dinin’ Hall is one of the conceptual ideas featured in the current exhibition Good Design in Hard Times at OSU Urban Arts Space located 50 W. Town St. downtown. It is on view through February 4, 2012. For more information visit uas.osu.edu.

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  • mrpoppinzs

    I think a very simple mostly open structure and some picnic tables are all that would be needed. The four square stuff and servers sound like extra complication and overhead. I think keeping them rotating is critical – a permanent food truck might as well be a restaurant.

    I would love to see something like this at Columbus Commons or somewhere else in the CBD.

    eta – I like the picture of Portland’s one, the renderings of Dinin’ Hall look overly built and stark in a garage kind of way.

  • michaelcoyote

    I agree with opening up the structure somewhat.  A storefront would also be good as it would let the light in.
    I don’t like the central ordering system as it se,ems unnecessary and cuts me off from the interaction with the truck owners/operators. Meeting the people and building a relationship with the people who run the trucks is part of the experience of truck dining.

  • The concept is great, and I like the execution of it as winter experience. For warm weather months, I think the same general idea could be used in empty lots (like the one at 5th and High). All one would need would be the necessary permits, some tables and benches, 3-4 trucks, and hungry people.
    What Columbus Commons was doing on Wednesdays at lunch this past summer is a perfect example.
    The renderings are a bit stark and cold. They look slick, but not particularly friendly.
    I agree with Michael in that street food should be about fun and social engagement. Getting to know the truck operators and talking to them is a big part of the appeal.
    We definitely need something like this in Columbus, and I think this is a great start to the conversation.

  • leftovers

    Picnic tables and maybe a small pavillion is all I would want to see. Simple is the way to go.

    I agree that a good part of the fun of food trucks is meeting people. I like ordering directly from the truck.

    Columbus Commons would probably be an ideal spot.

  • I agree with the other posts – keep it simple.  I understand the need to have some enclosure in Columbus, OH in the winter, but less is more!  Also agree that the idea of central ordering is a buzz kill.  The best part is hanging out in front of the truck, chatting it up with the truck operator/owner and the other customers.  Central ordering is not something I’m looking for in this experience. It would be cool to have this somewhere downtown or near campus.  I do also like the experience of going to other neighborhood where random trucks are set up – gives me a chance to explore parts of town that I don’t often frequent.

  • DCist

    Why would we turn food trucks into a restaurant with a kitchen on wheels?

  • cbus11

    ^ This is not a new idea, though the Dinin’ Hall presentation seems cold and overly complicated. I think if we just use Portland and other cities versions as an outline we will be fine, I think they have evolved simple practical formats we can use as a template. As everyone is saying, less is more.

    I think this is an important first step in the conversation.

  • WillRevenge

    I’ve got to agree with the other commenters.  I think some sort of a central food truck gathering area in Columbus is worth considering given how the city is laid out.  But by creating a centralized order/serving system is overcomplicated and strips out the very essence of food carts: low costs due to no overhead and low staffing costs and the social interaction between truck and client.  Plus, the HR infrastructure will be a logistical/accounting pain that will yet drive costs up even more.  You’re trying to bring order, rationalization, and centralization to something that is inherently decentralized and unregimented.  Maybe it will work, but let’s call it for what it is: a food court.

  • Eliza Ho

    Points well taken about the centralized ordering system. And I personally like the mentality of less is more.
    My original thought that is how the Dinin’ Hall / street food hub can attract swing eaters who are not so sure about eating at food trucks. There are lovers of food trucks and there are “haters” (for lack of better words) But there are also folks who like street food but are discouraged by the transaction and waiting part. Anyway, my goal is not to defend the centralized system but try to figure out what will work to attract more customers to eat from food trucks.
    Also, any suggestions on locations?

  • cbus11

    Your narrative describes a half hour wait in line compunded by a half hour wait for your food. While this may happen at big events I do not think an hour wait is the norm. If the food pod is in the same location for awhile the ebbs and flows of business can be averaged and accounted for – hopefully making it more efficient.

    I think if this is to be a tool to help expose people to food trucks it should have the normal transaction processes of food trucks. If newly exposed people get used to a centralized process (with waitstaff), they would still be unfamilar with the transaction process at the more ubiquitous solitary trucks throughout Columbus.

    As far as locations, Columbus Commons or somewhere nearby (Scioto Mile) is probably the best area for an initial one as it will expose the most people to the food truck phenomena (lunch time workers). After more people are ‘hooked’ I think putting one in other areas may create the draw you mentioned. I think the initial location should be in a high traffic, high profile area.

  • kestrile

    Yes, less is more. In no way should any of this be funded by the people or the city. If the trucks want to form a coalition to execute something that will favor them by creating a brick and mortars space, then taxes, upkeep, and management need to be in place as well. The largest praise for food trucks is their mobility, let’s keep it that way.

  • cbus11

    I definitely think Kestrile is right in that this should be funded by the food trucks. I imagine a food truck business association formed with some type of dues for the rotating trucks. I don’t think this should have any taxpayer funding. I think this will also keep costs low as the food trucks probably know what is best for their business.

  • I like the idea of facilitating regular meeting spots for food trucks, but agree with most other posters that overhead should be minimized.  That is the whole point of a food truck.  I don’t see food trucks voluntarily paying rent to landlords of vacant lots or buildings when they could just park somewhere else for free.  Finding public locations or working with landlords to allow them to park for free are probably the best options.

    I would think some reserved parking spots for food trucks surrounding large parks in dense areas (e.g., Columbus Commons, Scioto Mile, Goodale, Schiller) would work.  People could eat in the parks.  It would be reasonable for the food trucks to pay a time-based fee equal to the rate of the surrounding parking meters.

    In outlying areas, it will important to have parking for customers too.  Maybe a vacant or underutilized big box parking lot near offices along the outerbelt so people could drive there for lunch?  A place like Dublin Village Center or Crosswoods would have plenty of parking somewhere.  That new park they’re building next to Polaris Mall could work.  There’s an amptheater at Mill Run that could work well.

  • mrpoppinzs

    Where the money comes from is a very, very, good question. Obviously it seems it should come from the food trucks, but then I think Eliza and Tim should look into the response from current food trucks. It could be that the majority of trucks in Columbus prefer to fly solo.

    I like the idea of the food trucks using existing parks which already have benches etc. Columbus Commons screams for something like this.

    I think an easy first step would be seeing how hard it would be to set up a rotating list of food trucks parked at an approved place at Columbus Commons. I think there would be no need for any infrastructure.

  • Bear

    Food cart pods, as they are called, open daily and provide amenities such as picnic tables covered with umbrellas, portable bathrooms, electricity hook-ups, ATM machines, etc. They have become popular places where locals like to visit and travelers like to seek out for an authentic vibe of the city.”

    I don’t understand. In what sense is this the “authentic vibe of the city”? I thought visiting them on the street now was a way to experience the authentic vibe of the city. It’s one that I kind of enjoy, actually. What am I missing?

    “Think of it as a food court like in a mall…”


    I suppose there’s some value in providing a familiar environment for people who are uncomfortable with food trucks. But it seems like a lot of time and expense to go to, when there’s really no reason to be uncomfortable with food trucks in the first place.

  • cheap

    trying to force something to be “stylish” or”hip” is dumb.
    the best thing to do is let food trucks evolve on their own in the free market system.
    if people don’t like them or have their own opinions about them,that’s great.
    then the line won’t be as long

  • Cheap – This proposal (as I understand it) is a business venture or nonprofit looking to evolve things. I don’t see any “forcing” of anything going on. If a business owner or nonprofit wants to attempt this venture, it’s exactly what you’re referring to with “the free market system”. It sounds like you’re complaining for no reason and calling things “dumb” that you don’t seem to really understand.

  • Kestrile – I don’t see anywhere that this idea was proposed to be funded by taxpayers or the City of Columbus.

  • cheap

    this topic was started by somebody that doesn’t even own a food truck

  • How about folding chairs and easily portable tables ? Just something basic could do. Think Late Nite Slice, as well as the Taco trucks some Latino/a folk run.
    Fostering a communal ambiance, supporting small business, and enjoying some food seem the key points, as far as I’m concerned. There’s at least a hint of this in the picnic table area along the east wall of North Market.

    Sit on milk crate or the hood of somebody’s Mercedes. Whichever, be in the streets and say hello to people you don’t know

  • cbus11

    In a lot of cases, just eating in your car (think drive-in) would be doable in inclement weather.

  • Greenie

    Simplify this idea and it will work. No need for a waitstaff, the magazines and waitstaff are too much in my opinion. It creates an added pressure to tip these workers as well and it overcomplicates the simple idea of a food truck. A covered area with table, seats, and trashcans is all thats needed. Charge the trucks a fee for supplying their customers with seating and have a small staff in charge of keeping the area clean.

  • In terms of look, the design feels more Fleur than food truck.

    It’s not approachable and lacks a community feel.

    Further, as others have pointed out, the design is not adaptable and mobile.

    This should be a set up that can be taken anywhere and be set up in 15 minutes.

    Regardless, the design doesn’t seem like the real problem, which is why I’m surprised by the focus on aesthetics and an untried ordering processes, which complicates the experience and would make it feel like a corporate cafeteria given the proposed aesthetic.

    It’s unclear what problem this is solving other than having an indoor space during bad weather.

    Why not lower the barrier to entry to become a food truck vendor? The problems seem to be more with licensing and the startup costs.

    It’s expensive to get into this business for most people.

    Make it dead simple for anyone with a passion for making food and serving it to the public to become the next Jeni’s or Pattycake and capitalize on the existing independent food culture in the city.

    Pretty tables and chairs won’t accomplish that.

  • Mister MooCow

    Portland as the #1 destination for the world’s best street food? I take it that you’ve never been to Gurney Drive for rojak.
    The Food courts full of hawker stands all over southeast Asia have this figured out. Simple plastic furniture. Open-air dining.  Different colored trays for each vendor. Enough variety of vendors that at least one will appeal to someone in your party.  Permanent enough that you can go there on autopilot (and without consulting The Internets to find out where it’s hidden today). We need that here. And within walking distance of OSU.


  • dsigner

    A related, pro-foodcart thought is to get them to attend to neighborhood festivals (away from downtown). The vendors at those are pretty lousy, greasy, and over-priced. It’d be great to see 4-5 food trucks up in Worthington or Westerville, for example, when there are events downtown. It’d also expose additional audience to the trucks that maybe don’t make it to their regular routes.

  • laiyft

    Thank you for all the constructive comments. Obviously as a new idea, it will not be perfect and nobody know if it will work or not until we actually do it and test it out and fine tune it along the way if it is to be successful. We are mindful that this is a new idea that is unproven so we are working with people who are in the food truck business and food business in general to make sure that it is a sensible thing to do. The final approach and operation may change but the key idea really is to improve the street food experience and take it to the next level, just like the many new gourmet food trucks that started out last year and how they add to the the more traditional taco trucks scene. Many ideas and things started out sounding and seeming dumb (including the personal computer I am using to type this), while most of them stay that way and never go anywhere, some do and it can make a difference. But you will never know if you don’t try.

  • tdziemia

    I agree with those advocating “keep it simple.”  Agree that the Dinin’ Hall concept is basically a food court – YUCK!  If people want their dining experience to feel like a food court, they can go to a food court!  I came here from Philly where there’s a decent street food scene concentrated in the university areas (where there are benches and planters to sit on) and downtown (where the seating is more hit or miss).  As for winter, well, you wear gloves and wash ’em when the grease from your cheesesteak makes them stand up on their own.  And really, how many winter days do we get any more where the cold is really a factor??

  • Eliza Ho

    Any common grounds? Yes!
    Regular places for food trucks and carts (and their customers) to congregate, to socalize.
    Seating and weather-proof space.
    Rotating food trucks and carts.
    Serving areas that do not have walkable eateries.

  • cc

    I am not sure people need or are suggesting a ‘weather proof’ space. I would assume that people and trucks would just stay home on really bad days. A very simple open canopy might be nice.

  • dru

    i suppose i am in the minority of liking the designs posted.  i am however wondering if there is a bit of a hybrid between the modern aesthetic and the idea of keeping it simple.   Go with all bench seating instead of the high tops and stools.  Instead of going with the stark white, just go with plain plywood tables that would keep the clean lines but also pay homage to simple wooden picnic tables. Perhaps design them on wheels to be reconfigured easily, and/or collapsible so they could be moved to other venues as needed.   I think there are several ways that apparently contrasting ideas can be merged.

  • In being a professional musician in this city I constantly think of ways to gather people where they are not necessarily there to see music but for another reason and then the addition of music makes it that much better. A food truck “gathering” of sorts has been an idea brewing in my head for a while. Something regular on a Thursday night or in the day near offices for a lunch break where three different trucks park outside a big parking lot and a small stage is set up for musicians. This food hub is a GREAT idea and (like the picture from Portland) I think music would be a great addition to this idea. Of course there must be funding for the musicians. I also like the idea of the neon art sign art park. Bringing different disciplines together and a multi faceted (but not overly complicated) space would be awesome. Art, food, music. GO!

  • Feel free to contact me if you want to talk more about this, is the goal for someone to pick this idea up or is it already being done?

  • So much great feedback.
    As a foodtruck owner..first and foremost it’s fantastic how quickly we have been embraced by the citizens of Central Ohio, I am sincerely thankful and touched.
    After personally experiencing the “movement” begin in LA and traveling to Austin, Portland etc for research, there are so many exciting possibilities. All of which I see being beneficial to our city’s landscape if executed properly.
    Thank you Tim and Eliza for your interest in streetfood and getting a dialog started.

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