Although founded in Wichita, Kansas in 1921, it’s White Castle that perhaps best speaks to Ohio’s being the fast food promise land. By the early-1930s, the company had expanded to the bustling industrial Midwest and East Coast, placing locations from Minneapolis to Philadelphia and several other large cities in between. However, founder Billy Ingram felt something was off with White Castle’s location, and when former partner Walt Anderson asked to sell his shares in order to enter Wichita’s burgeoning aviation business, Ingram had an epiphany.
“It freed up Billy to say, ‘if we’re really going to be around for the long haul, where are we going to be?’” Richardson said. “It could be a lot more centrally located, and Columbus was really appealing.”
White Castle was ahead of the curve, as its move foreshadowed Columbus’ transformation into one of the country’s premier fast food cities for both starting new businesses and testing new products. A 1985 New York Times article dubs the state’s now-largest city the “fast food capital of the world.” The story goes on to describe Ohio 161, one of the metro area’s main thoroughfares, as “fast food row,” a 57-and-a-half-mile-long highway choked to the brim with every chain under the sun.
It was here, starting in the 1970s, that chains began testing their latest products to see if they’d stick. The Times article notes that “lite” menu items were among the trendy experimental options floated to central Ohio residents in the mid-1980s, with Wendy’s trying out tuna sandwiches and a cottage cheese salad. While those items didn’t last long, their debut showed that chains had the city front-of-mind for testing purposes. There are several reasons why, but one trumped them all.
“Columbus represents America about as well as any city in the country,” Ohio Restaurant Association President and CEO John Barker told Thrillist. “Despite being the 14th-largest city in the country, it has a rural component to it. Within five minutes you can go from downtown to a farm. So you get everything that comes along with that: the socio-economic impact, the range of demographics, income levels. You name it.”
The demographics of Columbus, at least compared to the rest of the state, are certainly changing -- rapidly. It’s the Midwest’s second-most populated city and, according to a 2019 US Census estimate, it was the only city in the region to add more than 10,000 new residents last year. Along with Cincinnati, it also added millennials, a key age group whose tastes chains are desperately trying to appeal to. Those facts, plus Ohio State University’s 61,000 students, the Ohio state government, high numbers of immigrants, and an isolated media market, make Columbus a dream test market.