This Midwest City Is Stealing a Lot of Great Talent from New York and California
All that talk about the rising cost of running a restaurant on the coasts isn't just talk, so what happens next? A visit to Columbus, Ohio yields a few answers.
On one of those unenviable winter afternoons, where a darkened sky couldn't decide whether to snow, rain, or pelt frozen water at you, Columbus, or at least this corner of Ohio's busy capital city, had crowded into the new Fox in the Snow café to warm up, have a coffee, some pastry, and to see what the fuss was about.
Okay scratch that—they already knew what all the fuss was about, because owners Lauren Culley and Jeff Excell opened their first Fox in the Snow café a couple of miles away from this one, just a few years back, in the Italian Village section of Columbus, a once-proud neighborhood that more recently had fallen on hard times. From the start, everyone who was anyone in this busy government and university town appeared to be turning up there quite regularly, for the breakfast sandwiches, for inspired, inventive pastry, for very good coffee, and, most important of all, the vibe.
Modern, industrial, but never too off-putting, bathed in the right kind of light (both natural and otherwise), the first Fox in the Snow felt like something you'd find yourself drawn to in high test-chic San Francisco, or one of the more fought-over patches of real estate in Brooklyn. Cosmopolitan, alive, a sense that you are in the right place at the right moment, but with the benefit of an unmistakably Midwest energy: welcoming, relaxed, even warm.
So popular was their first effort, Culley and Excell decided to open a second location within a relatively short period of time—this time, in a nearly-elegant old building at the bottom fringe of the even more historic German Village, one of the most eye-catching old residential neighborhoods you'll find in the middle of this country. Everything the couple did right the first time, they did even better, here. Behind the glass, just as before, there are groaning boards of rustic buttermilk biscuits slathered with jam, morning buns, sticky pecan rolls. On a neighboring counter, a highly-trained barista pulls shots of espresso, sourced from the very fashionable Tandem Coffee in Portland, Maine. It's all very how-we-live-now, and you might find yourself a little confused as to where you have landed, standing here in this electric atmosphere of happy people communicating, visiting, sharing the experience, rather than staring into their laptops. None of this is by accident, save the fact that it's happening in Columbus.
Jeff Excell grew up in California's Central Valley; he studied to be a photographer, with the goal of a career filled with travel. He's 38 years old now, 23 of those years spent as a committed skateboarder; he got into this business managing the first Blue Bottle Coffee ever to open on the East Coast, in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. Lauren Culley grew up in Central Ohio, moving to New York to pursue a career in publishing, eventually throwing it all away to learn how to bake professionally, putting in shifts at various bakeries around the city. She too would soon land at that Blue Bottle in Brooklyn, which is where the two met.
Culley, Excell would soon learn, wasn't just working at Blue Bottle for the paycheck—she was there to get the experience she needed in order to open her own bakery. After a trip to Ohio, not that long after they became an item, Culley made the decision. She was going to open that bakery, but she was going to do it back home. She was going to do it in Columbus, and what would be, would be.
"I thought I’d be in New York forever, and it was hard to leave—I didn’t even know where Columbus was at the time," says Excell, standing in the middle of the German Village café, because there was nowhere left for us to sit. "But I really liked Lauren, and I didn’t want to be that 50-year-old guy, living in Brooklyn, talking about how I had that great girlfriend once."
One thing led to another, and then another, and now they're both here, living in a house near the newest café with their new baby, running a successful business. Funny, what meeting someone terrific can do to your life plans.
Stick around Columbus for a while, do a little prying, and you’ll hear a surprising number of similar stories—there is a well-worn path from the coasts to Ohio's capital, an evolving city with the verve, the boldness of somewhere much less entrenched, somewhere with much milder winters. It's no secret that the cost of doing business in cities like New York and San Francisco is driving a lot of creative talent out of town. The industry's leading lights have warned us of this, time and again.
If you're looking to see where all of these aspiring entrepreneurs are going, Columbus makes for a great start.
Take Flowers & Bread, for example, a burgeoning mini-empire that includes a cooking school, an inviting bakery/café and a florist, all located in the relaxed, mostly residential Clintonville section of the city. Behind this ambitious effort is some incredible talent, both local and from the coast. Co-founder Sarah Lagrotteria's long journey through the food world has taken her all kinds of places and into all sorts of environments, both in New York and California, while master baker Sarah Black's 25-year career happened mostly in New York, at Tom Cat Bakery and Amy's Bread.
Little Eater, just up High Street in a sleek new complex that might have been lifted from a bourgeois West Coast suburb, is a vegetable-forward counter service joint opened by Cara Mangini, a Bay Area native who worked in New York and California before coming here. Author of an award-winning cookbook, The Vegetable Butcher, Mangini's Columbus career began with a still-thriving stall in the city's North Market; now she's growing her empire, testing the waters to see just how into plates of colorful salads people in Central Ohio actually are. Judging by her success in the North Market, the same North Market where New York expat Phuntso Lama recently expanded her critically acclaimed Momo Ghar, a Nepalese dumpling spot that started out in a grocery store in the Columbus suburbs, the answer is very.
The success these entrepreneurs—and others like them—have found in Columbus has been, they will tell you, extremely rewarding. But ask them what stands out most about their experiences here so far, and inevitably they'll start talking about how welcomed they've felt, how supportive the local food community has been.
"Everyone wants the other to succeed," says Mangini. "Everyone wants to see the other do well. There's this feeling here, that the best is yet to come."
"Before we opened the new location, we were thinking about expanding out of the city, and I realized, wait—I like it here," Excell laughs. "No one's ever jaded, about anything. People come in and say, 'We love your place,' and I’m like, 'Well, thank you!'"