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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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