Columbus, OH: Whitehall Tries Food Trucks to Draw Residents Outside

By  Quan Truong | The Columbus Dispatch

Whitehall officials want to bring more people into the city, and they’re targeting the hungry ones.

For the first time, the city will work with local food trucks for National Night Out, as part of a new campaign to become “a new Whitehall,” said Lindsey Wright, community affairs coordinator for the city.The event, held in cities across the country, is an annual block party or cookout that focuses on anti-crime programs and is a chance for public-safety personnel to mingle with residents.

“The food trucks have huge followings in central Ohio, and we thought it would be a good idea to grab some of those people who hadn’t known about our event before,” Wright said.

That sort of new twist on National Night Out is a smart strategy, said Jim Ellison, with the Economic and Community Development Institute, a nonprofit micro-lender in Columbus. The organization recently began working with food-based startups, particularly mobile vendors like food trucks.

“Whitehall may be a little ahead, but a lot of cities are being proactive in recognizing that food trucks and mobile operators can be a good way to draw people into areas they wouldn’t normally go into,” Ellison said. “That area of Whitehall doesn’t have a lot of restaurants nearby.”

He said he’s getting more and more inquiries from businesses and organizations for events such as Dress for Success, farmers markets and Back to School programs.

On some days, he receives up to four requests related to the mobile food vendors.

It is rarer for a case such as Whitehall’s, where a city is supplementing the trucks for a city-run event.

Tapping into that market is a logical step for Whitehall’s rebranding campaign, Wright said. Earlier this year, Whitehall allocated $150,000 for marketing efforts such as a new website and promotional programs.Efforts have ramped up in recent years to turn around the city, which has some of the highest home-vacancy rates and lowest income levels in Franklin County. Organizations such as Habitat for Humanity and the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission have focused efforts on renovating houses there. Columbus Metropolitan Library is going to build a larger branch, and the city is working to construct a new recreation center.

“We’re really trying to showcase the progress and the momentum in Whitehall,” she said. “We’re trying to grab people in the central Ohio community that may not have thought of us before.”The food truck vendors are passing out fliers to let people know about Whitehall’s National Night Out. Wright hopes to see the number of attendees at this year’s event to grow. The usual turnout is 5,000 to 6,000.

The event, scheduled for Tuesday, will feature five mobile food vendors: Pitabilities, Green Meanie, OH! Burgers, Ajumama and Freedom a la Cart.

The trucks will have a special menu and prices will be slightly cheaper, ranging from $2 to $4, instead of the usual $6 to $8, Wright said. The city will supplement the difference with donations from recent fundraising efforts that raised $12,500.

“It’s nice to see some of these larger events asking us to participate,” said Laura Lee, owner of Ajumama food truck, which sells Korean street food. “We always knew Columbus was a food city, but this has gotten unexpectedly large.”