One American town determines what fast food looks like around the world
Columbus, Ohio isn’t famous for many things. Other than a brief period as the “Buggy Capital of the World” and a famous namesake with an inability to admit he didn’t know where India was, the city is something of a mystery to most outside the mid-Western United States. However, for fast food fans, Columbus may well be the most important city on earth.
On the face of it, it’s tricky to understand why Columbus should be worthy of such an accolade. Though the city’s calendar is chock full of foodie festivals and events, it’s cooking culture is certainly not noticeably more or less dynamic than that of any other large city. Yet over 20 major national and international fast food franchises have chosen to base their headquarters either in the city or in the counties surrounding it. These include Wendy’s, Donatos Pizza, Bob Evans, Max & Erma’s and White Castle.
It’s not just food giants who call Columbus home. Everyone from retailers to health providers have chosen to eschew more glamorous options such as LA or New York in order to gobble up a piece of prime Ohioan real-estate. Five Fortune-500 companies, as well as fashion icons Abercrombie and Fitch, have found Columbus to their liking. It can’t just be the plethora of buggies scattered around the city. So what the hell is going on?
Unsurprisingly, there is method to the Columbus madness. Though all big fast food franchises offer a collection of tried and tested menu staples across their outlets, the powers that be know that things need an occasional shake-up. While everyone knows where they stand with a Big Mac or a Whopper, marketing teams have realised that we’re all suckers for something new. More often than not, the wow factor of a limited edition burger or new species of nugget is essential in luring gormless customers into a restaurant. We’re suckers like that.
However, all businesses also know that it’s not just a matter of unleashing something strange on an unsuspecting public. That way lie fast food horror shows like the McAfrica and the Tomato Surprise. They need a few test subjects to near as guaranteeing a serious return on investment. It turns out that the citizens of Columbus are the perfect guinea pigs.
It just so happens that, demographically, the city is a near-perfect microcosm of the rest of the United States. The population split in terms of race, gender, religion, and indeed most other defining characteristics has been an almost exact match for the rest of the country for decades. Therefore, if a business wants to get a good idea about how America might feel about their latest creation, Columbus is the place to be.
The eerily similar demographic landscape isn’t the only reason that Columbus is such a fertile testing ground for the fast food industry. The city also has a thriving student population, who are not only consistently more adventurous with their food than their conservative elders, but also aren’t afraid to shout about it. These food trendsetters are, ultimately, the market that businesses will eventually have to cater for, so discovering their likes and dislikes as early as possible is essential. The free publicity provided by happily-tweeting millennials is worth its weight in gold to any fast food franchise (assuming, of course, that what they’ve made is good).
It’s not just the students and the demographic that make Columbus such a tempting proposition. As a whole, the city’s fairly affluent population have more disposable income than many other communities across the country. This means that representatives from every age group and background are more willing than most to splash the cash on something unusual, giving businesses as broad a picture as possible before a major national or international rollout. The fact that the city also specialises in offering reasonable advertising rates for anyone hawking a new product makes it even easier to get the word out about the latest limited-edition offer.
As if there weren’t enough reasons for businesses to flock to Columbus, the city has a few more tricks in its marketing locker. The settlement is relatively isolated from other major cities, meaning that advertisers can produce targeted campaigns without fear of too much outside influence. Essentially, anyone watching TV or even walking the streets of Columbus is trapped by a wall of fast food commercials which all desperately try to persuade you to test a new sandwich. It’s enough to make your head spin.
Columbus’ reputation makes it quite an exciting place to live as a fast food fan. The city gets to try everything, from McDonald’s new nugget formula to Wendy’s latest line of burgers, and many residents have fond memories of menu items that the rest of us can only dream about. Essentially, the city acts as judge, jury and executioner for the entire industry’s latest multi-million innovations. If Columbus doesn’t like it, it doesn’t get made.
Though it might seem exhausting to be under constant assault from brands trying to flog you their wares, this is a sacrifice worth making for a true fast food fanatic. If you want to try every conceivable big brand creation under the sun, the solution is simple. Move to Columbus as quickly as possible. It’s the only way to truly taste everything on the menu.