Local Mobile Foodies Gear Up for First-Ever Columbus Mobile Food Conference and Expo

You may have noticed the vast amount of food trucks lining the city streets this past spring and summer, or as mobile operators call it, “the peak season,” serving the bustling metropolis of Downtown Columbus at over 15 different locations. Perhaps you’ve even stopped for a quick bite or coffee while hustling back to your desk. A few years ago, this sight wouldn’t have been commonplace.

Walter Eguez of Tortilla

Columbus has quickly become known for embracing new concepts, offering new alternatives to the average consumer. Often dubbed “Test City, USA,” part of Columbus’ newfound appeal is its propensity to welcome inventive and innovative business models of all forms. Coupled with the city’s affordability, Columbus has lent itself as a destination for millennials to move to, making the city more likely to cradle contemporary concepts through its continued influx of vibrancy.

It’s no surprise that the local mobile food industry has grown into a true player in Columbus’ service industry sector. The city’s alacrity to welcome innovation has established Columbus as a home base for more than 100 food truck owners. With countless festivals over the summer, headlined by the Columbus Food Truck Festival, the mobile industry grows each year as new operators become accustomed to the “ins and outs” of the business, eager to leave their culinary food print across city streets. Industry leaders have witnessed this excitement first-hand and wanted to figure out a way to sustain the “mobile momentum” throughout the off-season. This thought led to the birth of The Columbus Mobile Food Conference and Expo, taking place February 27 and 28 at the Sheraton Columbus Hotel Downtown.

“Based on the growth we’ve seen at the Columbus Food Truck Festival the past couple years, we thought it would be valuable to get everyone together to network and exchange ideas about the future of the industry,” says Mike Gallicchio, renowned event producer and co-founder of the Columbus Food Truck Festival. “We wanted to create a platform for the mobile food scene where people who are interested in the business can go and learn all facets of the industry, but also allowing mobile veterans — people who’ve been operating food trucks and carts from the beginning — a chance to network with their peers to exchange new ideas.”

Strategically placed right before the “peak season” gets underway, Gallicchio hopes that the conference becomes another staple in Columbus’ thriving mobile industry. With programming panels led by local experts that cover a plethora of topics — food safety, festival preparation, business planning & start-up costs, how to stay profitable during the winter, just to name a few — local food truck owners are both excited and curious to attend.

“It’s a big stage for industry leaders to come together before we all get too busy during the spring,” says Walter Eguez, founder of the popular Tortilla food truck brands. “We all move together as an industry and benefit from helping each other out. I am very active with my business, but not as active on the networking front. So I am excited to talk to my peers and learn what others are doing because as soon as you think you know everything about this business, someone finds another way to extend their brand.”

Eguez has established himself as one of the true players in the mobile industry. He will offer his expertise to the mobile conference through two panel discussions covering catering models for savvy vets and food truck crisis response, a panel aimed at new vendors explaining how to react when unforeseen problems arise during service.

With a permanent stall established at the Columbus Commons this past spring, and two trucks already in rotation with a third on the way, Tortilla offers customers a fully customizable Mexican cuisine experience. Eguez contributes his success to finding ways to stay relevant in all facets of the service industry.

“The beauty of Columbus is that the demand and excitement is so high right now for mobiles that there are opportunities everywhere if you know how to look for them,” Eguez notes. “I encourage new trucks to use that to their advantage. The only thing that truly stops business is the weather. But even when it’s 20 degrees out, you must find a way to stay relevant.”

20-degree days don’t stop Jim Comyns, operator of Loops Food Truck. An extension of the popular Grandview restaurant that specializes in authentic Chicago-style cuisine, Loops Food Truck operates 365 days a year, rain or shine, or snow, or sleet, or hail. Speaking on a panel discussing ways mobile operators remain profitable in the aforementioned off-season, Comyns stresses that budgeting is tantamount to a food truck’s longevity.

Jim Comyns of Loops

“One of the key elements during the summer peak is to be financially responsible to stockpile winter payroll,” Comyns says. “One great thing about going out during the winter is that customers are much more appreciative. They realize that they aren’t viewed as a dollar bill but rather we are there, providing them a service, despite the bitter cold. We often have people come up to us at festivals during the summer thanking us for coming to their offices in January. It’s a great way to establish a loyal following even when the sales aren’t there in the winter.”

Comyns agrees with Eguez’ sentiment that the more trucks involved in the industry, the better it is for everyone. He hopes to walk away from the Columbus Mobile Food Conference with new ideas and new relationships forged.

“It’s important for mobile operators to have a platform to bond with each other,” Comyns stresses. “I am excited to meet other trucks that compliment our food so we can work together and increase business overall.”

Perhaps one of the most attractive elements of the mobile food industry is the sense of innate admiration operators share for one another, established by working side-by-side over periods of time that can extend well over twenty-four hours. The camaraderie established “working in the trenches” has proved infectious and has contributed to the continued growth of the industry in Ohio’s capital city.

Mobile pioneer Lisa Gutierrez, founder of the popular Dos Hermanos brand, attributes much of her success to being heavily involved in not only the business elements of the mobile industry, but the communal elements as well. She fully believes that Columbus is ready to support a conference that brings like-minded industry workers together.

“The growth we’ve witnessed just over the past two years is tremendous, so the timing makes sense to have a conference to shed light on all the innovation currently taking place in Columbus within the mobile scene,” says Gutierrez. “It’s important to see what’s out there and continue to educate each other — the general public, people interested in the business, and owners and operators who’ve worked in the industry for years — so we can all work in collaboration to move the industry forward with the momentum already established.”

Gutierrez has grown the Dos Hermanos brand from a single truck to an established resident in Columbus’ popular North Market this past fall. She’s also paved the way for mobiles to get their product in front of the masses by securing contracts from The Ohio State University to serve at Ohio Stadium, while maintaining an active presence at MAPFRE Stadium during the Columbus Crew soccer season. While vending at the NHL All-Star Game last winter, she realized that Columbus’ food industry was not only gaining national recognition, but attracting international attention.

“Columbus was front and center, and we were able to interact with international media covering the All-Star Game,” Gutierrez says. “To be a part of an event like that, which introduced brand new cultures to the mobile industry on a world-wide level, was thrilling. It was not only beneficial to local mobile food operators, but to all small business owners, nationwide. Columbus has become a true innovator in the mobile food scene across the country and it’s refreshing the word is finally getting out.”

Gutierrez will be participating in a panel discussing mobile food culture and its effect on food tourism. With her location at the North Market, she often encounters tourists with little knowledge of Columbus’ food scene.

Lisa Gutierrez of Dos Hermanos

“Being able to interact with curious foodies and act as an advocate for the mobile industry is the best part of having a permanent location,” Gutierrez says. “During truck service, there’s little time to talk to customers. Since opening up here [The North Market], we’ve been able to showcase both our story and our food more, which has extended our brand, while also allowing us to inform the public about the vast amounts of cuisine offered by other mobile operators. It really paints a nice picture of Columbus.”

One thing supporters of the Columbus mobile food scene continue to reiterate is that this is no longer considered a “fad industry,” but a growing, ever-evolving business sector that sees new trucks each year with few people dropping out of the business.

“Columbus is breaking the rules for the mobile industry,” Eguez says. “The city has embraced the mobile movement and my peers are pushing this industry to the next level. When this industry was just starting here, everyone wanted to copy what mobiles were doing out in the big market like Los Angeles and New York City. I would tell them, ‘Listen man, we are Columbus. Why don’t we want to just be ourselves?’ I wanted to be Tortilla, and I wanted to be the best I can be. Looking back, I am glad other local operators went down that road. What we have here now is special.”

If interested in learning more about the Columbus Mobile Food Conference, go to colsmobilefoodconf.com. If interested in registering for the conference, you can purchase tickets here.

— Since 2011, ECDI has supported the mobile food industry with the creation of the Food Fort, Central Ohio’s hub for mobile food business owners. A 24-7 commissary that gives mobile operators access to prep space, a fully licensed commercial kitchen for cooking and baking needs, and truck, cart, and food storage, the Food Fort has supported the growth of the local mobile food industry since its infancy stage. Coupled with ECDI lending services, the Food Fort currently is home to over 50 food-based businesses in Columbus, Ohio. Dos Hermanos, Tortilla, and Loops have all utilized services offered at the Food Fort. To discover how ECDI can support your small business, visit www.ecdi.org today. —

Feature image courtesy of Columbus Food Truck Festival.