Heard About Columbus?: Marketing our city's dining scene

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

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).

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