Writing about food morphed from hobby to job
Food Fort coordinator Jim Ellison says Columbus has a growing food truck scene that offers more than "street meat vendors." Operators of food trucks such as the Green Meanie and the Blu Olive, behind Ellison, use the Food Fort kitchens to prepare their food. Buy This Photo
One thing keeps leading to another for Jim Ellison.
The 43-year-old longtime Clintonville resident was majoring in psychology at Ohio State University when he started writing about food.
"Food's kind of my natural thing," Ellison said.
In fact, he created a "food book," a combination of recipes and commentary, and had copies printed at a Kinko's.
"It was my emergency present when I forgot to get someone a present," he said.
Ellison showed the self-published work to his instructor in a writing class at OSU. Shannon Arnold Jackson, then editor of Ohio Magazine, promptly invited him to become a freelance writer for her publication. Ellison went on to write about food, travel and even high-tech subjects for a variety of publications all over the state.
In 2006, Ellison said he was halfway through with a writing project when his publishing company went out of business, leaving him with lots of content and no place to put it.
A friend suggested he start a blog.
"This was the early days before it got super popular," Ellison said.
Through the blog, he got to know people in the then-fledgling food truck movement in Columbus, and in 2009, he collaborated on creating the website tacotruckscolumbus.com.
"That just took off like crazy," Ellison said. "That really opened me up to mobile food and what you could do with it and some of the possibilities."
Today, he writes for four different local food websites and has a talk show on the subject on WCBE on Saturdays.
"It just spiraled out of control to make sure I don't ever have any free time," he said.
Ellison is also coordinator of the nonprofit Economic and Community Development Institute's Food Fort Program, which initially provided startup capital and parking for mobile food vendors and more recently, expanded to provide commercial kitchen space.
What led to that job was another thing.
In early 2011, Ellison had an idea for a business venture that he took to officials at ECDI, which provides loans, training and grants to help budding entrepreneurs get started.
Further research led Ellison to conclude his business concept wasn't going to fly, but by then, institute officials realized how familiar he was with the local restaurant scene and how well-connected he was to the food truck community.
They brought him on board to get the Food Fort going.
"I was definitely ready to leave my job," Ellison said. "The timing was great."
The Food Fort and the burgeoning food truck scene in Columbus are very different from the "street meat vendors" people might remember from bar areas in college towns, he said. These are portable operations offering unique menu items for breakfast, lunch and dinner that have really grown in the past two years.
"I saw that it was something that was going to take off and something that's been good for our community," Ellison said. "It's not one thing. It's a combination. Part of it is the novelty ... and then with the economy, restaurants have always been shaky, so people have had to either defer their dreams or find a different path for them.
"The success of one encourages other people to try to do the same thing," he said. "With a truck, you can drive around until you find the people who connect with what you do."
On National Talk Like a Pirate Day, set Wednesday, Sept. 19, Ellison said one of the Food Fort vendors plans to turn his truck into a pirate ship on wheels, offering a "completely off the wall menu for the day."
"You can't very well do that at a Wendy's," he said.
Ellison was born in Columbus and has lived in Clintonville since 1971.
"Not my entire life, but most of it," he said.
He attended the former Glenmont Elementary School, Clintonville Academy -- which his parents helped found -- and Bishop Watterson High School.
"I've been able to walk to school my whole life," he said.
The first in his family to attend college, Ellison was partway toward earning a master's degree in psychology.
"But then I worked in the field long enough to know that I didn't want to pursue that," he said.
And since then, things have led to other things.
Ellison isn't married but shares his home with an "Appalachian porch hound," a rescue dog named Toby.