Jennifer Evans-Cowley, PhD, AICP, Chair APA Technology Division
Bethia Woolf’s journey to becoming a “food adventure” entrepreneur started with a modest class project. Woolf immigrated to Columbus, Ohio from the United Kingdom and quickly became immersed in the city’s food culture. She sits on the board of Slow Food Columbus and regularly judges local food competitions. Woolf decided to take a class at Ohio State University in geography to further her interests. As part of her class she decided to map the city’s Taco Trucks online – Bethia explored the city and found 37 taco trucks and created a map.
But the map for the class was just the start of what would turn into a business. Woolf decided, along with two partners, to create a blog and interactive map encouraging people to visit the taco trucks. The website includes pictures of each taco truck, years in operation, region and country of origin, menus, descriptions of specialties, and location in the city.
For taco truck newbies, the site provides taco truck etiquette tips, such as “While waiting, don’t park yourself at the counter. If it is busy make room for the next customer. Most of the salsas are set up to share in squirt bottles, so when you are finished pass them around or return them to the truck.” Common Spanish phrases are also provided. Her website has a significant following of taco fans who use this site to find taco trucks in their neighborhood. For example, one visitor commented: “Thank you for this priceless information! I had to be out in Pickerington for some reason and Rincon Latino made my trip worthwhile. A group of men was playing dominoes and drinking beer from a cooler on a Saturday afternoon, like you will see in every town in the DR [Dominican Republic]. The tropical fiesta smoothie was excellent. Please keep up the good work.”
The comments section of the blog stays active with people sharing their experiences, commenting on their favorite dishes. Woolf reports that the comments have been mostly positive, although she has had to put an end to competing taco trucks putting negative comments on each other’s pages. Along with the blog, Woolf set up a Twitter account where 558 taco lovers Tweet about their favorite taco trucks, share news stories, and pass along information. The Facebook page, Taco Trucks Columbus, is also active with fans sharing their favorites.
Woolf said that her website has been particularly helpful to these businesses who don’t have the resources to advertise broadly. The website reaches out to a broad audience and the site has resulted in significant and regular local press.
While the website has elevated the taco truck and its popularity, it also raised zoning issues. In one Columbus neighborhood the rise in taco trucks concerned neighborhood leaders who asked the city to put in place stricter rules. One of the neighborhood area commission members described the taco trucks as creating a “ragtag” image of their neighborhood. The city’s zoning official realized that the city’s zoning ordinance does not specifically address mobile food vending. He supports clarifying the zoning ordinance to ensure that they can be sited in nonresidential districts as long as they do not obstruct driveways or occupy required parking spaces.
Food writers began writing about taking taco truck tours to explore the city’s taco trucks. One local magazine asked Wolff if she would write an article based on her blog. She suggested basing the article on the theme of great ethnic restaurants that no one has heard about along one of the city’s major corridors. Woolf led the tour with the magazine, and along the way participants heard great stories from the restaurant owners, ate wonderful food, and shared sense of excitement from learning about the city. This tour cemented an idea to start a food adventure business.
Woolf launched Columbus Food Adventures in July 2010. The company provides a service that allows customers to load up in a van and be taken from taco truck to taco truck for a fixed price. In addition, Wolff’s company offers an alternative eats tour of ethnic restaurants in Columbus. I took one of these tours this summer, dining at a Middle Eastern bakery, a Vietnamese sandwich shop, a Somali restaurant, and a Persian restaurant. This was a great experience providing a tour through the ethnic enclaves in Columbus that I’ll admit I may not have visited without a recommendation. This was a great opportunity to learn more about my city’s own ethnic communities. The website is modeled similarly to Taco Trucks Columbus, offering many of the same social media tools. With the social media tools up for less than a month, there is a growing and significant fan base already.
What started as a simple class program has grown into a social media campaign promoting small business development in Columbus. Woolf’s work in social media has helped raise awareness in Columbus about the amazing ethnic food our city has to offer. Woolf’s work is an excellent example of how technology can be used to support the food system.
For more information on Columbus Taco Trucks please visit: