Of the four up-and-coming cities, Columbus may be the least obvious. The city is smaller than metros like Dallas and Atlanta—home to 1.86 million people, based on 2010 estimates—but it’s a powerful and attractive force to be reckoned with. The area’s tax climate has been ranked in the top five in the country by both Ernst & Young and KPMG, thanks to the lack of personal property, inventory, or corporate income taxes. The city’s cost of living, based on an index of 100, was 91.9 in 2010, and in the same year, Forbes named it the fifth-most relaxed city in the U.S.
Many in the area would argue that the location couldn’t be more ideal; 47 percent of the U.S. population is accessible within a 10-hour drive. Columbus is also home to two of the biggest burger chains in the game—Wendy’s and White Castle—as well as more than 170 food and beverage manufacturers.
Population: 1.86 million
Size: 532 square miles
Home To: Wendy’s, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, Donatos, Charley’s Grilled Subs
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, USA Travel Guide, City Of Columbus
Jamie Richardson, vice president of government and shareholder relations at White Castle, says the city’s rich educational resources—Ohio State University (OSU), Capital University, and Ohio Dominican are among the several nearby institutions of higher education—mean the brand can not only tap into the knowledge of these universities, but also the students who flock to the area. He says the brand occasionally works with OSU on testing and research, while Columbus itself is a popular market for national brands to do menu testing.
While a corporate-headquarters location may be most important from a branding and culture perspective at the beginning of a brand’s life, Neyrey says, resources and financial advantages like those found in Columbus become the bigger factor “as your financial status grows, as your position in the industry grows.”
Because White Castle has been calling Columbus home since 1934—it was founded in Wichita, Kansas, in 1921—the brand has a large presence in the city. “That hometown identity connects our customers a little bit tighter, knowing that we’re based there,” Richardson says.
It also means the brand has taken on some of the community’s attributes over the decades. “There’s a personality to the town itself that’s really in line with the restaurant personality,” Richardson says. “It’s a hard-working town, but it’s approachable. It’s a friendly town, and I think when you’re in the hospitality business, being in a town that’s known for its friendliness seems to be a nice combination.
“One of our values as a family-owned business is what we call being a humble family, and there’s a humble quality to Columbus,” he adds.
Though it’s not a big metropolitan area like New York or L.A., Richardson says, there’s “a quirkiness to Columbus that makes it kind of cool.”
It’s also a self-proclaimed foodie hub. “There are great, great food people in Columbus who really have an appreciation for the craft of great cuisine and what it takes to make incredible-tasting food,” Richardson says. “We get to spend time with some of the best restaurant people in the world, and we don’t have to fly to Paris to be able to do that. We just have to walk down the street.”
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