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Secret Ingredient

Amid the monotony of formulaic fast casuals, Sweet Carrot exceeds expectations with every bite. Refined, yet whimsical, their fascination with corn cakes and smoked meat amid an industry of imitation built-on buns and bowls isn’t just daring. It’s downhome flare that’s downright defiant. If there remains any mystery behind Sweet Carrot’s success through simplicity, the [...]
J.R. McMillan

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Amid the monotony of formulaic fast casuals, Sweet Carrot exceeds expectations with every bite. Refined, yet whimsical, their fascination with corn cakes and smoked meat amid an industry of imitation built-on buns and bowls isn’t just daring. It’s downhome flare that’s downright defiant.

If there remains any mystery behind Sweet Carrot’s success through simplicity, the secret ingredient is founder Angela Petro. Cast against type as both a restaurateur and entrepreneur, she’s no Gordon Ramsay knockoff barking orders and berating the staff, nor some smug, Silicon Valley visionary perpetually pitching the next big thing. Petro is the opposite, honest and humble, and actually stumbled into Sweet Carrot neither by design nor necessity. The impulsive purchase of a food truck as a mobile R&D platform for her decades-old catering company proved so unexpectedly popular when it launched at the Columbus Arts Festival, a permanent location became all but inevitable.

The original location in Grandview was an instant hit at the old Rife’s Market, but the second at Polaris was slow to take off. So the third in Dublin has focused on what restaurant patrons increasingly expect, a conscientious kitchen with menu options for everyone, regardless of dietary restrictions or preferences. It’s still fast casual, but with a thoughtful, artistic take on comfort food destined to grow beyond Central Ohio.

“It all came together as a curated experience. I would say it was fortuitous, at a time when I was starting to explore this kernel of an idea,” recalled Petro, whose established enterprise Two Caterers had reached a pivotal point. “When we started, we were doing simple drop-off lunches. But as we pushed ourselves, we became thought of as a high-end catering company, with creative presentation at a competitive price.”

In those early days, Petro wasn’t just wearing a proverbial chef’s hat. She was taking orders, working the kitchen, making deliveries, often serving her creations on-site, and washing the dishes at the end of the day.

“My background is blue-collar. I grew up never having catering, and that’s where most of us live. But people still have parties, they still have a need,” she revealed. “Every now and then, you need help with food, but you aren’t throwing a $30k graduation party or a $60k wedding. I still had that feeling we weren’t really reaching the market that we set out to service.”

Unable to shake the perception as a prohibitively-priced caterer for many, and uncertain any amount of marketing would change popular opinion, Petro envisioned a sister brand that would capture that long-lost clientele.

‟It bolstered the thought that we could go after this market of folks in Central Ohio who wanted wholesome food at a price they could afford, without someone in a bowtie wearing white gloves holding a silver tray. That’s how Sweet Carrot started.”

“Everyone contributed ideas to what we could roll out on our food truck—our sales team, kitchen staff, and our chefs. It bolstered the thought that we could go after this market of folks in Central Ohio who wanted wholesome food at a price they could afford, without someone in a bowtie wearing white gloves holding a silver tray,” she recalled. “That’s how Sweet Carrot started.”

The commitment to creative comfort food has always been a true community project. One of her chefs pitched the idea of savory corn cakes as a base, with brisket and pulled pork from a commercial smoker Petro picked up at auction as the perfectly decadent, working-class complement. Their signature corn salsa, adapted from the recipe repertoire of a staffer’s family potlucks, has become a ubiquitous condiment. Even the name came by way of a friend whose knack for word play was among many happy accidents. “He sent me an email that said, ‘Did you know Sweet Carrot is an anagram of Two Caterers?’,” she chided. “So that became the name of our
food truck, even before we knew what we planned to serve.”

The result is a menu that is neither seasonal, nor static, and taps into changing customer expectations. Their corn cakes are gluten-free, their slaw dairy-free, and vegetarians aren’t the only ones swooning over their fried artichokes—a callback to that first Columbus Arts Festival where they were cleverly sold as “fried arts.” And much like any credible country kitchen, little goes to waste, with yesterday’s brisket and pork becoming today’s Brunswick stew, and chicken meatballs joining kale and black-eyed eyes in tomorrow’s soup. Even the leftover mac and cheese is coated in breadcrumbs from remnant rolls and flash fried to preserve their gooey goodness. (Petro personally vouches for their portability, preferably with a side of pickles.)

Petro admits she’s been the beneficiary of both luck and good fortune along the way, from a tiny little lunch company to a beloved local food truck that prompted patrons visiting Columbus for the Country Living Fair to plead her to open an outpost in their hometowns too. Even the name Sweet Carrot and its origin are metaphors for what great restaurants do best, turning existing ingredients into something completely new and unexpected.

“I believe in this brand, and never conceived of it as a one-off. When we opened the first Sweet Carrot, I struggled creatively to try to find the guardrails, to keep it something that could become a multi-unit restaurant,” she recalled. “I wanted everything and the kitchen sink. I originally had a wine section and wanted to have a small market with products packaged to take home. If I’d opened it as a single location, it would have been a very different concept.”

The character of Rife’s Market was both a blessing and a curse. Petro and a team of staff and friends were sanding tables and painting the walls themselves. But the design and layout were more intuitive than intentional, setting a high bar for replicating the aesthetic at additional locations with less inherent character. Though Polaris was ambitious and demographically desirable, the new Dublin spot reveals the maturity of a brand ready to break out of Columbus.

“This third iteration is not the end, because there’s so much we’re going to learn. Though it is tempting, and exciting, and flattering to think about opening another location, it’s also the right time to pause,” she noted. “We’ve opened two restaurants this year, as a very tiny company. But we are definitely looking to keep expanding and evolving. We’re small, but mighty.”

To find the nearest Sweet Carrot, or to check out their catering or special diets menus, visit sweetcarrot.com

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Tea Time: Spritz puts new twist on bubbly beverage craze

Mitch Hooper

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It’s Friday night and you and your friends are at the bar. While everyone else is sipping back glasses of wine, cocktails, and beer, it’s your turn to be the designated driver of the night. We all take our rounds, and these rounds are usually a reminder that being out at the bars sober while everyone else is working on getting intoxicated just feels off. As your friends reach for their glasses to toast in celebration, you might take a sip of your ice water, or just wait to get the nod to round up the crew and go home. However, Kathyrn Dougherty is hoping to change this all-too-common situation with her line of non- alcoholic sparkling teas called Spritz.

Spritz is a new beverage hitting the markets based out of Dublin, Ohio. In a world where grocery stores offer seemingly endless options of sparkling waters and flavors, it was really only a matter of time until the trend took to tea. But, unlike the famous La Croix and Bubly on the market, Spritz is much less carbonated, giving it a lighter mouthfeel. They’ve even coined a phrase for it: softly sparkling. Combine that with flavors such as green tea with pomegranate, lemon, and peach, and Spritz might quickly become both your mid-day pick-me-up as well as that refreshing drink you enjoy in between a night of cocktails.

The idea for Spritz comes from Dougherty’s background in health and fitness. A few years ago, she and her friends were training for an Ironman competition. These competitions are not for the light of heart, as they feature 2.4-mile swim, a 112- mile bicycle ride, and a 26.22-mile marathon in this exact order. It goes without saying that training for and competing in this leaves little room for hangovers. As Dougherty and her friends would hang out more after workouts, they noticed they were craving a more sophisticated drink that wouldn’t cause a splitting headache the next day. Thus, an idea was born.

It started simple for Dougherty. At the time, she was (and still is) a big fan of sparkling waters. She also had grown a heavy affinity towards Teavana, a tea provider now owned by Starbucks. After scrubbing used Gatorade bottles with disinfectants and cleaners in her very own kitchen, Dougherty and her step-daughter began the process of brewing what would eventually become the basis for Spritz. While she no longer uses Teavana for her tea blends, she still holds a special spot for them in her heart.

Fast forward to present day and Dougherty is ready to release Spritz to the public in December. The first iteration of the teas will be hibiscus with dragonfruit, guava, and mango with no caffeine. Dougherty said this tea is great for unwinding after a long day, or simply treating yourself after a good stretch at a yoga class. The zero calorie, zero carbs, and gluten-free drink is both vegan and keto friendly so it fits essentially any diet. And while the idea for Spritz began during a time of looking for an alternative to alcohol, the drink maintains its fitness roots as Dougherty works to get the drinks in places such as PAI Yoga and Friendship Fitness in Dublin.

“I want something I can grab and say, ‘Hey, I get a treat now,” Dougherty explained. “But, it’s not going to be something I feel bad about.”

Spritz also serves a second purpose, and it’s something Dougherty feels is very important to the brand of the business. It’s women’s empowerment, and through channels such as hiring more women at proper pay rates to close the pay gap, or promoting other women business leaders through their hashtag #FemaleFounderFridays on Facebook, she hopes to change a few practices within the industry. In her mind, the best way to do so is to lead by example.

From her team being comprised of women, to working out of the space at Haven Collective—a woman-owned and -operated co-working office—Dougherty is very much walking her talk. Add in the fact that 1% of all sales this year will be donated to charities and nonprofits that empower women, and it’s clear that she is just as much invested in uplifting women as she is with concocting delicious beverages.

“For some people, [women’s empowerment] means being a stay-at-home mom and having 10 kids—that’s wonderful. I will celebrate that that’s your path in life and that’s amazing,” Dougherty said. “If you’re a woman who doesn’t want to be married and doesn’t want to have children, that’s amazing. Go do that. My number one thing here is that women can feel like they can choose the path that’s right for them and not apologize for being too ambitious, or ‘not ambitious enough.’”

Keep up with Spritz on their Facebook page at facebook. com/SpritzBev or visit the website at spritzbev.com.

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Sweet News: Macaron pop-up opens in Short North

Regina Fox

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We've adopted many things from the French—kissing, press, bread—but perhaps the sweetest is the macaron. Cincinnati's Macaron Bar recently opened a pop-up location in the Short North at 668 N High St., just in time for the holiday season.

The bakery offers "a premium texture and flavor experience enhanced by our vibrant, cosmopolitan stores," according to its Facebook bio.

Several core flavors are available in the Short North, as well as 3-5 seasonal selections. All the macarons are gluten free. Macaron Bar also offers pour over coffees and loose leaf teas.

Macaron Bar is open Tuesday through Thursday from noon- 7pm, Friday from noon- 9pm, Saturday from noon- 10pm, Sunday from noon- 6pm, and closed on Monday. Visit macaron-bar.com for more information.

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Strip Mall Surprise: North Columbus Vietnamese restaurant is a tasteful treasure

Aaron Wetli

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Welcome back to Strip Mall Surprise, where we highlight locally-owned restaurants and bars that just happen to be located in a, wait for it, Strip Mall.

Let’s warm up with a big bowl of Pho, along with many other Vietnamese delights, in one of Columbus’ best kept secrets: Huong Vietnamese Restaurant.

Pho

Nestled away in the southwest corner of Northland, Huong Vietnamese Restaurant is an unassuming haunt that has kept neighborhood residents swimming in Pho since 2008.

Upon entering, you will discover a quaint and cozy dining area containing a seasonal holiday display and a television paying VCR tapes of 1980’s MTV Christmas videos. Yes, you read that last sentence correctly. If the Boys 2 Men and Kenny Rogers "Oh Holy Night" collaboration doesn’t warm your soul, the Pho will.

Served in a bowl the size of a football helmet, the Pho is piping hot, rich and flavorful. You can order beef, chicken, shrimp, or noodles only, and could be split between two adults (I said could, NOT should).

Noodle bowl

If you are in a hurry, Huong offers three different options for carry out Pho: eating at home, eating at work, or eating in the car. Each option is prepared differently for the different environments the Pho will be consumed in. How neighborly is that?

If you aren’t in the mood for Pho (weirdo), the Canh Ga will certainly warm you up as well. Deeply seasoned, but not breaded, these fried chicken drums are crunchy and juicy, come with a Sweet and Sour Chili dipping sauce. They rival ANY fried chicken in Columbus and are guaranteed to warm you up on a cold day.

Fried chicken drumsticks

A menu item to definitely consider splitting, for no other reason than saving room for other delicious treats, is the FOOTLONG Banh Mi sandwich. Choose between chicken, pork, and beef options, enjoy the toasted bun and accompanying small army of cilantro, jalapeño, carrots, and cucumbers. Just be warned that finishing the sandwich in one sitting is a one-way ticket to a food coma.

Banh Mi sandwich

As for the less well known Vietnamese fare, Huong also offers Crepes (I suggest the shrimp), assorted rice dishes (get the pork chop and fried egg), and rice vermicelli salads with choice of proteins and peanut sauces, as well as a concise but versatile selection of vegan options.

Huong Vietnamese is a funky, fun, and festive holiday destination that doesn’t break the bank unless, of course, it becomes your new obsession. You have been warned.

Huong Vietnamese Restaurant is closed on Tuesdays, does not serve alcohol, and is located at 1270 Morse Road.

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