Here's why Columbus is a fast-food hub

Jess Deyo
Columbus CEO
Sam Oches, editorial director for Chapel Hill, North Carolina-based Informa’s Restaurant Group

Columbus is headquarters for fast food favorites like Wendy’s and White Castle, and even fast casual joints like Piada Italian Street Food and Charley’s Philly Steaks. We may even be considered the epicenter for fast food, with a history stretching nearly 100 years, but why? Fast food expert and editorial director for Chapel Hill, North Carolina-based Informa’s Restaurant Group Sam Oches draws on his industry knowledge to explain why having ties to Columbus is a no-brainer.

Why is Columbus sought out for fast food headquarters?

“As far as headquarters go… Columbus is within a couple hours’ flight of, like, 75 percent of the U.S. population. Columbus is very strategically located for doing business meaning that you can get, fairly easily, anywhere you want. But what Columbus really has going for it is sort of the big three: governments, college towns and a great economy. I think Columbus is one of the healthiest cities economically in the Midwest, if not the healthiest city economically in the Midwest. It’s growing, it has no limits, it’s not got any body of water to stop it from growing. So, it’s economically very viable. And so, when you have this growing city that is doing very well economically, you have access to both universities and government—that means you have a lot of access to talent. To position a corporate headquarters in a city like that is kind of a no-brainer.

Columbus is known as a test market for new menu items—why?

Columbus is very much a cross-section of American demographics. And you have old and young, you have right and left, you have a very cultural mix. And it’s incredibly vibrant from that standpoint. Very diverse, very much a cross section of many demographics. And so that’s why you get into talking about restaurant companies that like to have Columbus as a test market, even though they’re not based in Columbus. We’ll roll out limited-time offers in Columbus to see what kind of response they get there. And that’s because they want to check in with every type of person that you can, and Columbus is one of those kinds of cities that has all of the demographics that you’re going to want to test it out on.

Why have some restaurants not survived even in a city with such opportunity?

By the time we get to the internet era, and especially the social media era, if you can’t keep up with the times, then you’re just gonna sail off into the sunset because there is just so much pressure to perform at a high level. Now, this isn’t true in every community. You go to some communities in America, and they still need or want value-oriented brands. In every restaurant company, America is going to have some fans one way or another. But right off the bat even the most successful restaurants are still not making as much profit, as you know, tech companies. So, point being is that, in this market, if you are not keeping up with the times, keeping up with the demand of the consumer more broadly, then you’re not going to have a larger base of customers to make your business financially viable.

How has the pandemic affected the industry?

It’s funny because I would say, from 2011 until 2016, 2017, we were talking about quality all the time, and we’re talking about all these fast casuals bringing up that we’re doing farm-sourced fast food and you know, you paid 15 bucks to get super healthy [food]. Honestly, pre-pandemic, the advent of delivery and mobile ordering and all this stuff started changing. People just started to realize that they prioritize easy access and value over quality, and the pandemic cranked that up times 1,000. When you look at the numbers, fast food and fast casual has actually been crushing it for the last year. Some companies like pizza and chicken wing companies are doing 30-40 percent sales better than they did the year before because they’re easily delivered, and you can order it from your phone very easily.

What's the future of fast food?

The big question mark is real estate. I’ve been looking at Columbus real estate, because I’m going to move there at some point, and I mean, it’s bananas. The market  is insanely hot. And as Columbus grows outward, the closer in the city you go, the more expensive it’s going to be. And certainly in parts of the city like the Grandview and Upper Arlington area and some of those parts, it’s gonna be out of reach for anybody but chains who have the cash on hand to secure those leases. And further out as the city expands outward, you’re gonna see more opportunities for mom and pops to come in. But Columbus has also been an economically healthy city and a very young and vibrant city—you’re going to see a lot of developments that are multi-use, you’re going to have the developments with condos and yoga studios. Those kinds of places really prefer fast casual companies that are favorable to millennials. The fast casuals will stand to grow if they can afford the lease.