This is the time of year that we at (614) anxiously await the announcement of our yearly “best of” Columbus reader poll. The floodgates open in anticipation of a torrent of responses to various iterations of a single question: “What is your favorite _______?” From bars and breweries to bands and boutiques, the ColumBest poll [...]
This is the time of year that we at (614) anxiously await the announcement of our yearly “best of” Columbus reader poll. The floodgates open in anticipation of a torrent of responses to various iterations of a single question: “What is your favorite _______?” From bars and breweries to bands and boutiques, the ColumBest poll is our chance to hear the people speak.
And speak, you did! With 1,119,517 votes, this was our most powerful avalanche of replies yet. In nearly a decade of the best-of-the-best of people, places, products, and services; this is the most voluminous reverberation of rejoinders thus far. Well over 14,000 people told us who their favorite bakery is for 2018. (Congrats, Koko Tea Salon and Bakery!) And over 4,000 of you threw your hat in the ring to vote for the category of “pick-up bar” to let us know that cruising for company is still a thing the Internet doesn’t have absolute control over. (We’re lookin’ at you, Standard Hall.)
So, before we sink into the singularity, and while the people still hold the power, let’s exercise our right to choose the leaders in their fields. The following categories hold triumphant winners, and the excellent runners up in all things Columbus. Keep this copy as a guide to the best places to nosh, slosh and mingle—at least until next year.
Rick Hahn is passionate; passionate about his restaurant, passionate about his community, and most especially passionate about the assistance he offers to those in need.
Serving hearty breakfasts and delicious lunches (get the chicken and
noodles), Nancy’s Home Cooking has been a Clintonville staple since it
was opened by Nancy Kammerling in 1968. In 1970, Kammerling sold the
business to Cindy King who ran the restaurant for nearly 40 years before
niece Shelia Hahn took the reins.
Flash forward three years and both King and Hahn, neither of
whom would turn away a customer in need, had passed away, leaving
the future of the restaurant in doubt. This is where Shelia’s husband
Rick stepped in.
“I married into the King family but still didn’t know anything about
cooking,” Rick said. “I learned from watching a lot of cooking shows on
television. I just felt that I had to keep Nancy’s going and to continue Cindy
and Shelia’s commitment to serving the community.”
On his watch, Hahn has implemented a Pay It Forward program
that serves between 10 and 20 customers a day. In short, for $5, you
can purchase a future meal for someone in need; the only caveat is
that the buyer has to write a message on a post it note that is delivered
with the lunch.
“People can write whatever they would like,” Rick explained. “Some messages are funny and some are inspirational. Some are even movie quotes or jokes. The important thing is that the notes brighten the day of the person who receives it.”
It should be noted that these Pay It Forward meals are not just a box
with a turkey sandwich, potato chips and an apple. Those who receive
the meal can choose from chicken and noodles; biscuits and gravy; a
breakfast platter; Southwest chili; grilled cheese; and bean soup and
cornbread. The menu is seasonal and changes for appropriate outdoor
At the suggestion of girlfriend Richelle, Hahn also offers personal
hygiene kits to those who ask. These kits, which come in drawstring
backpacks, aren’t cheap to assemble (about $10 each) and contain a
30 day supply of soap, toothpaste, wipes, toothbrushes, deodorant,
shampoo and other assorted toiletries. Women’s kits also contain
feminine hygiene products.
“As for the kits, no one is turned away. You don’t even have to eat here
to get one,” said Rick.
The real Belle of the Ball, though, is Rick’s Thanksgiving Dinner. Last year Rick, with help from his staff, family and neighborhood volunteers (different shifts of 50 each), served over 500 dinners to the community. Canopies, tables, and different stations line High St., the attitude is festive, and again, no one is turned away.
“On Thanksgiving, we are probably in violation of a few zoning laws,
but I don’t think anyone really cares. All of the other businesses are closed
that day and we have High Street to ourselves,” Rick said while laughing.
And what a Thanksgiving dinner it is. Last year’s menu contained
the regular Thanksgiving staples—turkey, ham, rolls, green beans and
mashed potatoes as well as pizza, shrimp cocktail, brisket, ribs, and
lobster. Not too shabby.
“Not everyone who comes to the meal is homeless or even necessarily
in need. Some of the attendees are elderly, have no family, or have no
other place to go. I’m happy to give them a place to go,” said Rick through
It is safe to say that Rick has honored the legacy of the King Family.
Nancy’s Home Cooking is located at 3133 N High St. If you would like to donate money towards the Pay it Forward meals or Thanksgiving Dinner, you can do so in person or use PayPal.Me/nancyshomecooking. You can also drop off new/unused toiletries at Nancy’s from 6 a.m.–2:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and from 8 a.m.–2:30 p.m. on Sunday.
When Chris Baggott returns from a run to the ClusterTruck kitchen, he’s almost always late, and his fellow drivers don’t mind letting him know it. Tight delivery times aren’t just an expectation for the fledgling food service. It’s part of the brand, serving fresh fare to waiting patrons, often in less time than the average restaurant.
So what’s ClusterTruck’s trick to providing such a wide range of high-quality cuisine at a record pace? There’s no restaurant, and their slowest delivery driver, Chris Baggott, is also the CEO.
“I don’t go out as much as I used to, just to keep my hands in it. But when I get back minutes later than our more experienced drivers, they laugh at me,” Baggott confessed. “If you’ve been doing this for a year, you’re good at it. You know which corner or which door, a little shortcut here and there. Faster delivery is what makes our business work.”
Quietly creeping into the local culinary scene between the flood of innovative eateries and a fleet of food trucks are so-called “ghost kitchens.” They’re restaurants without the restaurant, focusing exclusively on delivery without the hassle and overhead of running a retail establishment. Homegrown concepts like Food Fort Columbus and 1400 Food Lab help industry entrepreneurs prepare meals with all of the precision of their retail rivals. Kitchen United, which already operates locations in Pasadena and Chicago, is scheduled to open their latest facility in Grandview Yard this year as the next phase of an ambitious nationwide expansion. For those struggling to find and afford suitable space, it’s the culinary equivalent of co- working and part of an already $100 million food delivery industry.
But ClusterTruck remains the original, unapologetic disruptor. Operating out of an inconspicuous warehouse near downtown Columbus, it relies on its own dedicated delivery team instead of contract food couriers to serve their hungry customers.
“There’s a broken model in third-party food delivery, from delays that affect quality to low courier morale. If you look at Yelp, a lot of the negative reviews are really criticisms of the delivery process,” he explained. “When I first looked at this market, the restaurants weren’t happy, the customers weren’t happy, and the drivers weren’t happy. So we deconstructed it and built a system that serves all of its constituents.”
That approach may sound a little wonky for a phantom food truck operator. But Baggott didn’t work his way into the restaurant business busing tables. His former life as a software creator proved both profitable and liberating, with earlier endeavors snapped up by Salesforce and Oracle for handsome sums. Along the way, he got back to basics, exploring his growing passion for sustainable agriculture, going as far as starting his own grocery store, then founding three farm-to-table restaurants from scratch. Baggott is as much a chameleon as an iconoclast, as comfortable in a conference room as a chicken coop. Even with dirt under his fingernails, the gears of an engineer are always turning.
“Let’s say the customer is five minutes away from the kitchen, and I have 30 minutes to get the order there. Our software manages our drivers, so we may not start making your food immediately,” Baggott noted. “Our driver may be able to make another delivery before your order is ready. We’ll start making your order when the driver is five minutes away. That way, you get your order on time, and fresh from the kitchen.”
Comfort food is evolving by definition. From hearty carbs to sophisticated salads, “comfort” is now more a measure of how food makes you feel, not an arbitrary attribute that’s the same for everyone. Meeting that ever-expanding expectation is also an edge for such hyper- efficient eateries.
“Ghost kitchens can iterate and innovate. We recently launched a gyro in Indianapolis. We also launched a protein bowl with hummus we make in house,” Baggott recalled. “That’s when we realized we already have pita, tahini, and chickpeas—we should make a falafel. Now, we’re testing recipes to launch a falafel.”
Not all revelations are as obvious or unemotional. The Columbus customer base continues to grow, as are operations in Denver, Kansas City, and the original location in Indianapolis. But ClusterTruck locations in Cleveland and Minneapolis were temporarily suspended. Some menu items have also gone away when they didn’t make the cut, including their take on Johnny Marzetti.
“Dropping Johnny Marzetti was heartbreaking for me because we already had all of the ingredients. I loved it, but it just didn’t sell. But a big advantage we have over a brick-and-mortar restaurant is access to data. A traditional restaurant may launch a new menu item and sell 500 the first day,” he explained. “But they can’t see who orders it again, or worse, who ordered it and never came back. All of those transactions are anonymous. We see everything, order rates and reorder rates. We don’t just know what sells, we know how it impacts overall customer experience.”
ClusterTruck launched a tofu kimchi burrito that initially sold very well, but then seemed to taper off. They dropped it, but once they dug into the data, they discovered existing customers returned, but customers whose first order was the ill-fated burrito didn’t. Their online menu has since become more adaptive, featuring items with higher rates of reorder for new customers, something typical restaurants just can’t do, and an insight they probably would have missed.
“One of the challenges with Cleveland and Minneapolis was building the brand. We were great at building kitchens and software, but frankly, we weren’t great at marketing because what we do is so different,” he noted. “We haven’t abandoned those cities, we’re just refining our marketing before we reopen. It’s one of the advantages third-party food delivery services like Grubhub and DoorDash have. They’re just adding a new service to an existing restaurant. We have to introduce a whole new brand.”
The funny thing about brands is that they aren’t how you view your company, it’s how others view you. And that’s also an inherent challenge for restaurants minus retail, even as the market for prepared foods booms. Catering is key for most ghost kitchens, and ClusterTruck tapped into it early, making group orders easier for folks with restrictive and selective diets, even offering access through the popular office collaboration platform Slack. Now about a third of sales come from group orders. But every new business needs a little luck and a leap of faith. Fast, free delivery still came down to customers meeting couriers at the curb, a hunch that paid off.
“That’s our entire business model, and the one thing we couldn’t know for certain before we launched if customers would be willing to do. It’s why our drivers get four to six, even eight deliveries an hour, instead of just one or two,” Baggott explained. “We’ve had more than a million deliveries and I can count on one hand the number of complaints we’ve had about having to meet the driver. When it comes to quality, every efficiency matters. It’s why customers are as much a part of our success as our staff and our software. They come to us, online and outside, and that’s what makes ClusterTruck work.”
Notice anything different on your I-670 and/or I-270 commute lately? Could be the nine 600-square-foot, 110,000-pound digital signs towering over the freeway.
These signs display information about the first ever Ohio SmartLane.
The I-670 "SmartLane" is the left shoulder that will be open when traffic slows to a crawl. It begins just east of I-71 in downtown Columbus and extends to I-270 on the East Side.
The SmartLane will be closed most of the time, indicated by a red X. But when traffic dips below 50 mph, The Dispatch reports traffic monitors will send signals to the overhead signs to open the SmartLane. When open, the speed limit is 45 mph.
“It might sound counter-intuitive, but studies have shown traveling at slower speeds actually keeps traffic moving better because it avoids the 'stop and go' conditions which can cause more accidents," said ODOT Director Jerry Wray. "Ultimately, we believe the combination of the extra travel lane and the reduced speed limits will allow for a more reliable commute for travelers along that route."
ODOT has installed more than 30 traffic cameras to monitor the lane for any obstructions, reports The Dispatch. The right shoulder of I-670 will be free for disabled vehicles to use.
The $61 million project is officially complete. Visit ODOT.com for more information on the project and the new traffic patterns.