Suddenly our vibrant dining scene is the Midwest's best-kept culinary secret, making headlines across the country (and for more than just ice cream). Here's how the word got out.

Suddenly our vibrant dining scene is the Midwest's best-kept culinary secret, making headlines across the country (and for more than just ice cream). Here's how the word got out.

Story by Beth Stallings

The first time food writer Josh Ozersky traveled to Columbus, he intentionally didn't stay long enough to eat.

"I had been under the impression Columbus was a vacuum," says the Time magazine and food columnist, who was in town researching the history of White Castle for his book "The Hamburger: A History." "I thought it was a nightmare wasteland of chain, quickservice restaurants with no food scene to speak of. I had only the slightest hopes for a decent meal." Harsh words he would eat a few years later, returning in 2010 to appear at the Central Ohio Home & Garden Show. Ozersky was turned on to, as he describes it, the "vibrant, flowering food scene" by local public relations specialist Amy Weirick, who works with Experience Columbus to promote the city.

She showed him a few local highlights: Alana's Food & Wine, Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams (which he would later praise as one of the country's best in a Time magazine blog) and Thurn's Specialty Meats (a spot to which the meat-loving writer cannot wait to return).

Ozersky's a-ha moment with dining in Columbus isn't uncommon. Visiting writers and bloggers are repeatedly surprised by what they taste. That shock has turned into national press over the past year for local eateries, farms and distilleries.

Just a few mentions include National Geographic naming Columbus as one of its 10 great places for a fall trip in 2011, the Chicago Tribune twice touting Columbus' worldly cuisine late last year, and a Washington Post article calling Columbus a "new destination for food lovers" in January 2011.

The sudden love for eating here is more than happenstance. Catching the eye of the out-of-town media has been a marketing mission of Experience Columbus since 2009, when the local convention and visitor's bureau launched its culinary tourism efforts, says director of tourism Kari Kauffman. It's since blossomed into a multifaceted approach of press releases, tours and social media marketing.

Early on, they saw the shift in culture happening. Visitors didn't just want to eat while they explored a city--they wanted to experience the city through its food.

"We realized culinary is a great niche for us because we can support it, because it's authentic to us," Kauffman says. Columbus' burgeoning food scene, with its ingrained farm-totable culture, was poised for exposure.

Experience Columbus started simple, pushing stories of local chefs like Kent Rigsby and Cameron Mitchell to roughly 50 regional and national writers and editors in monthly releases. To tempt palates, quarterly product mailings followed, featuring local favorites like Jeni's ice cream, Pistacia Vera macarons and, most recently, coffee.

"There was some interest," Kauffman says, "but no immediate payoff."

So instead, they brought writers to the story. Experience Columbus hosted its first food-specific familiarization tour (known as a FAM) in 2010, inviting about a dozen food writers for a three-day Columbus culinary binge. The itinerary included eating at independent restaurants and food trucks, touring local farms, distilleries and breweries-- and, most importantly, meeting the creators behind them all, hearing their stories.

Stories such as that of Rockmill Brewery owner Matthew Barbee. A Columbus native, Barbee spent a decade in Los Angeles before returning to discover a progressive food scene in his hometown. It inspired him to stay and open his Belgian-style microbrewery with a beer-is-like-wine mentality.

Barbee has hosted media from several Experience Columbus tours at his Lancaster farm--so much so that he's a bit overloaded, occasionally having to turn them down. But it's a happy problem to have, he adds.

"Experience Columbus is doing wonderful things in terms of our exposure," says Barbee, who's been hearing from both local and national media over the past year. He was mentioned in Maxim's 2011 holiday gift guide. Writers from USA Today and Vibe both visited his brewery in early June.

The appeal, says Scott Peacock, Experience Columbus' public relations manager, is artisan.

"We may not be known for whatever, fill in the space. But the thread that is coming out is artisan--whether it's baked goods, coffee," Peacock says. "Everyone has their own unique twist and it's at a level above what [visitors] are used to seeing."

With that in mind, FAM itineraries are crafted using suggestions from local foodies in the know--writers, bloggers--who can speak to what is unique, up-andcoming and who has a great story to tell, says Peacock, who leads the tours.

To make tours more credible and less of a sales-pitch they occasionally invite local editors and bloggers along to answer questions and give additional insight. The outside expertise helps, Peacock says, because visitors can't always trust that a tourism bureau will give an unbiased view of the city.

The feedback thus far, he says, has been one of surprise.

"Anytime we bring someone through, it's the same thing. They come in with no expectation at all, and they leave saying, 'Wow, I had no idea,' " he says. "We have a good story here. We just need to tell it."

Getting out of Columbus to tell those stories is another aspect of the marketing plan. Once or twice a year, Peacock travels with the state board of tourism to New York, Washington, D.C., or Des Moines, Iowa, to sit down with magazine and newspaper editors, build relationships, talk about articles they are working on, and share what's new in Ohio.

"The last two placements [Columbus had] in National Geographic came out of the last meeting," Peacock says.

Brian Samuels was dreading his fall trip to Columbus. The Boston native had never been to Ohio, and he didn't anticipate finding inspired dining in the middle of farm country.

"I was definitely surprised," says Samuels, who's since written nearly a dozen posts about Columbus on his blog A Thought for Food. A few of his favorites included breakfast at Skillet, pastries at Pistacia Vera, coffee at Brioso and gin from Watershed Distillery ("I'm in love with that gin, and I'm not even a gin fan," he says).

"A lot of us are really proud to buy something made down the street," says the Columbus Food League president. "We like to brag about each other. And I think we cheer each other on."

Lessner actively uses social media, such as Twitter, to attract outsiders to her local eateries. When band The Darkness was in town for Rock on the Range, they encouraged the group to visit Dirty Frank's to see a mural with their picture in it. And when musician Ben Folds is in town, he stops at Betty's.

"He comes every time, Lessner says. "We'll tweet him, and he tweets back."

Experience Columbus is using similar tactics: ramping up social media efforts and inviting out-of-town foodies, such as Ozersky, to experience the food scene while in town for an event. The hope is to also attract new events to the city, especially those that could bring bigwigs in the food world.

In June, the tourism bureau hosted one such convention, the annual Public Relations Society of America Travel & Tourism Conference (beating out Sonoma and Montreal for the spot), which brought in 30 writers and editors from publications like Food Network Magazine and USA Today.

"We don't know what will come out of that event," admits Weirick, but, she adds, the people who came have long tentacles in the food industry. For example, the great experience Travel Leisure's wine editor, Bruce Schoenfeld, tweeted about ("OK, ready for this? Best Japanese meal I've had in a long, long, long time: Kihachi in Dublin, Ohio. Really. Really!"), could lead to something more. "Even when someone like that just tweets, he has such a huge following of the right people."

That's what happened with Chicago Tribune writer Bill Daley, who heard from a colleague that Columbus has a great Japanese scene. He called up Experience Columbus, and they worked with Columbus Food Adventures' Bethia Woolf to create an itinerary for Daley as he we was passing through town. That led to an article in November 2011.

To find these conferences, Experience Columbus is turning to area pros. Local bloggers identified potential blogger conventions, such as the International Association of Culinary Professionals, and provided contacts for Experience Columbus to reach out to, says Hounds in the Kitchen blogger Rachel Tayse Baillieul. Peacock says they've also reached out to culinary pros about conferences they attend, looking to find a good fit to bring to Columbus.

Taking advantage of social media is Joe Vargo's job at Experience Columbus. During the last FAM tour, the interactive marketing strategist watched Twitter come alive as bloggers ate their way through the city, using #cbusfoodscene in tweets. Over three days, more than 400 tweets caught attention in Cincinnati, New York City, Los Angeles and even Vancouver.

Visitors can also follow the Columbus Food Scene Facebook page, where Vargo posts articles and blogs from local food publications (the recent rise of which is another example of the flourishing food scene, he adds) and blogs about the food scene. Their Pinterest account is full of photos from area publications of local food and drink.

"We have a really passionate group of local people who have a lot of say about food. So we want to harness that for the visitor," Vargo says.

And starting in August, Experience Columbus will run its first culinary-focused advertising campaign. Ads will run in drivable cities, such as Cleveland, Pittsburgh and in West Virginia. Typically campaigns focus on popular topics, such as family fun. A website redesign will launch in the fall, adding stronger culinary presence featuring food itineraries.

"Experience Columbus has just been a boon," Lessner says. "We owe so much to Experience Columbus getting the word out. They get it. They have people who get it. They know what's going on, they know what's cool, and they know how to pass that message along."

Photos by Eric Wagner

Foodie Itinerary
Must-visit spots for visiting foodies

Breakfast at Skillet
Lunch at Harvest Pizzeria
Dinner at Alana's Food & Wine,
Basi Italia or Kihachi
Dessert at Pistacia Vera or Jeni's

Brews from Rockmill Brewery
Gin from Watershed Distillery
Coffee at Cafe Brioso
Cocktails at Curio

For meat at Thurn's
Specialty Meats
For everything
else at North Market