Not much in this world sells itself. Like cat videos, bacon and Buckeye football, the North Market is a ubiquitous staple of downtown Columbus that needs no marketing team to assert its presence. A bastion of locally-produced food products ranging from grass-fed beef, pork and poultry to produce and specialty baked goods and spices, the North Market is located just west of Nationwide Arena and only a block away from High Street. The unique co-op provides a space for local businesses to thrive, and for Columbus residents to purchase specialty, locally-sourced products.
Walking into the market you experience a deluge of delectable smells drawing you from vendor to vendor, leaving you determined to savor what each kiosk has to offer. Step inside and you’re immediately greeted by the aroma of North Market Spices and a display of fresh, locally sourced produce from the Little Eater. The North Market used to attract mostly shoppers looking for packaged goods. However, since the market concept has become so popular and national grocers started supplying a variety of foods from different ethnic backgrounds, the audience changed from shoppers to diners, and the vendors have changed with them.
As of October 14, the co-op has filled each vendor space with a variety of different small businesses serving dishes that run the gamut from donuts to authentic polish sausage. Of the 35 businesses that call the North Market home, nine of those vendors have received funding or assistance from the Economic and Community Development Institute (ECDI), a Columbus-based non-profit CDFI. Dos Hermanos, which filled the final opening, is one of those businesses who received assistance from the community development organization with a mission of investing in and educating local entrepreneurs.
Lisa Gutierrez started Dos Hermanos as traditional taqueria food truck serving authentic Mexican cuisine derived from her husband’s grandmother’s recipes. Eventually she heard about ECDI and the services they could offer through their Food Fort, a food-based business incubator that provides business support to a plethora of local “foodie-preneurs.”
As soon as she started getting marketing assistance from the organization, “They sent us everywhere you could imagine,” Gutierrez says. “Being with ECDI made us instantly credible. We got to go to places like Huntington and Chase offices [to serve lunch], places that wouldn’t normally host food trucks unless ECDI had sent them.”
Once she gained some notoriety, Gutierrez was approached to begin selling tacos, burritos and quesadillas in Ohio Stadium, and then the Schottenstein Center and, finally, Mapfre stadium.
“Eventually, I was asked to be on the mobile food vending board for the City of Columbus,” Gutierrez says. “That’s where I met Rick Wolfe, the executive director of the North Market, and they approached us about perhaps joining the market.”
Applying for and moving into a spot in the market was something Gutierrez felt she needed help with. Both ECDI and the North Market were happy to assist.
“I’d never done a build out or put together a proposal to be in a space, so that was another place where ECDI helped out,” Gutierrez says. “I met with Kimberly Gayle [ECDI’s director of business education & incubation] who helped me fill out the application for the market. We also had to do a presentation in front of the board and being able to sit down with her made me more knowledgeable of what I was submitting to them.”
Cash flow was one of the biggest issues Gutierrez faced due to the rapid expansion of her business. With her loan secured through ECDI, she was able to better manage her finances, allowing her to expand her business “without the worry.”
“It’s amazing,” she says of her new fixed location. “The city drives people here, you have the convention center right there, food tours coming through, and school buses dropping off students for tours. There’s constantly traffic coming through and I think that the community wants to embrace small businesses that have been in incubators like the North Market and ECDI’s Food Fort.”
In addition the newest North Market vendor, one of its oldest residents, Don Ziliak’s Pastaria, has taken advantage of funding opportunities with ECDI. Pastaria, which offers create-your-own pasta meals and other traditional Italian dishes, has been housed at the North Market since 1993. He later went on to open Sarafinos, an Italian pizzeria, and Pastaria Secunda, which sources fresh-made ravioli and sauces for home serving. In 2008, with banks not meeting the needs of small businesses, Ziliak turned to ECDI.
“The loan process was easy,” Ziliak says. “Trying to go to a bank for a loan at the time was impossible so ECDI was the obvious choice.”
Ziliak notes that one of the greatest appeals of the North Market for small business owners is that one does not have to worry about marketing. Curious customers come in without any specific dining plan, which places emphasis on the visual element of a business. Therefore Ziliak makes sure to have all food offered in display cases, such as packaged pastas and dine-in pasta offerings, as well as a pizza rack stacked with smoldering, fresh-baked pies.
Another vendor that often catches attention of passersby is Destination Donuts, owned and operated by Heather Morris. Since moving into her spot in May, it’s been difficult to walk past the corner stall without stopping to drool a bit at the gargantuan, freshly-made donuts.
“I’d always wanted to start my own business, but was at a loss for what I wanted to actually do,” Morris says. “Destination Donuts was inspired by a trip to Hawaii where we were staying on one of the small islands and we kept seeing people bringing Krispy Kreme donuts back from the big island to the small island, because there wasn’t one there. I thought, ‘I could do an artisan product and craft something that wasn’t here previously.’”
And craft something she did, making an entire city thankful for her vacation to Hawaii.
Morris began with an idea but needed to find a production center after she was told by the health department she couldn’t produce out of her home. She was pointed in the direction of ECDI’s Food Fort, and the rest is history.
“It was great,” she says. “I was so thankful for ECDI for providing me a framework for being able to test the waters. I was in the Food Fort for two and half years. On weekdays I worked from 2:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m. in the morning, and on weekends I would come in around midnight. Eventually, I got a loan that helped get my business up and running [in the North Market].”
Moving into the market, her first fixed location, “felt like coming home” says Morris, who had been operating as a pop-up vendor at the market while she was cooking out of the Food Fort. The loan process, she says, was very smooth.
“I’m fortunate that I had a lot of good mentors and I had some things in place already,” Morris says. “My business was already flourishing when I went for a loan, but everyone there was wonderful and welcomed me with open arms and coached me through the whole process.”
Since the move, Destination Donuts was able to streamline their production by baking at the North Market, a process made simpler by the flexibility of the market itself.
Like Ziliak, Morris also struggled to receive the funding she needed from a bank.
“I approached banks originally, but due to the length of the time that I had been in business and just being a small startup, they were a little bit more challenging to acquire funding from,” Morris says. “It’s a good thing to have ECDI because they can pull from numerous resources.”
Since moving into the North Market, Morris has seen tremendous growth.
“Weekends are insane,” she says. “When I was doing my forecasting I had no idea what I was in for when I opened up the shop. It’s awesome, it really is. You got a diverse mix of patrons and employees; it’s an eclectic group that’s not necessarily like the corporate environment, which is good. I fit in better in this realm.”
The vendors at the North Market are unique in their own ways and have stories of their own. Though the North Market may not be their final destination, it’s an important chapter for hard working small business owners doing what they love in the city that made it possible.