Columbus is the capital of Ohio, but for years was without a notable food. While Cincinnati is known for Skyline Chili, Columbus has no signature cuisine. The organic item most associated with Columbus is the Buckeye, but it’s not like people are referring to the (poisonous!) nut – they mean the football team.
Earlier this year, the Columbus Dispatch decided launch a survey to identify the food it should be known for. Up for consideration were some of the most famous foods associated with the city, including Wendy’s hamburgers and White Castle sliders. Columbus is the birthplace of those two giant chains. With such a strong presence in the region, there was no way a burger could lose ...
Or so we thought. With 46 percent of the vote, the people chose a spicy German sausage called a Bahama Mama.
The only place to get a Bahama Mama is Schmidt’s, one of the oldest and most famous restaurants in town. Located in the German Village neighborhood, Schmidt’s was founded as a meat packing house in 1886 by J. Fred Schmidt. It eventually became a restaurant in 1967, and the business now includes multiple food trucks, stands, catering and events.
Five generations of Schmidts have made it into an institution, including patriarch J. Fred’s great-grandson, Geoff, who grew up in Columbus while his father George ran the restaurant. “We’re very lucky to have five generations,” Geoff says. “Most families don’t get to three. And now we’re fightin’ like heck to get to six!”
The Schmidt family has lived in Columbus since the 1880s, and Geoff grew up in the shadow of Ohio Stadium with a fairly famous next-door neighbor: legendary Buckeyes coach Woody Hayes, the winningest coach in Ohio State history. Nearly 50 years after becoming a restaurant, Schmidt’s still serves up several original recipes for different sausages. The classic Bahama Mama is a chopped (never ground) pork and beef blend, filled with spices and smoked over hickory. There’s also a pork bratwurst, a garlic German knockwurst and a milder version of the Bahama Mama.
“The name doesn’t scream ‘German,’ but the process does,” Geoff says.
So where does the Caribbean connection come from? Well, there’s an old Schmidt family story for that. “My uncle, who was sort a wild man, spent a lot time in the islands,” says Geoff. “He had just gotten back from the Bahamas, where it was really hot. And he was a little bit of a womanizer … Somehow, the words ‘Bahama,’ ‘Hot Bahama,’ and ‘Hot Bahama Mama’ came up. Suddenly, we had this really good tasting sausage, with this awful name for a German restaurant. But my dad didn’t change it. Thank God he didn’t, because it’s our most famous product.”
Schmidt’s victory over Wendy’s and White Castle in the Dispatch contest was even more impressive because the German joint had two entries. Columbus visitors with a sweet tooth, take note: Schmidt’s signature cream puff is a softball-sized pastry shell filled with a house blend of vanilla pudding and whipped topping. For diners who want more than vanilla, the cream puffs also come in chocolate, peanut butter, chocolate ganache, cherry (for George Washington’s birthday) and mint (for St. Patrick’s Day).
These delectable cream puffs are one of the most popular food in the city. How popular? On game day at Ohio Stadium, the nearby Schmidt’s stand and food truck will move roughly five to six thousand cream puffs an afternoon. Couple that with the more than 5,000 sausages sold and that’s a whole lot of Schmidt’s. “We open up on game day in the morning, and it just goes crazy,” Geoff says. “It’s a zoo.”
For folks that can’t make it to Columbus this season but crave a Bahama Mama, Schmidt’s ships anywhere in the United States. “We’re a third of a pound sausage link. We’re a big sausage,” Geoff says. “You should be drooling by now!”