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The Kitchen Factory cooks up collaborative business model







The Kitchen Factory in Northside has been serving up pizza slices since July 1. But its no ordinary pie shop, and its owner is no ordinary pizza maker. In fact, Melissa Cox Howard, a chef-musician-singer, has come up with an entrepreneur-friendly business plan that you won’t find anywhere else in Cincinnati.

The Kitchen Factory serves pizza Thursday, Friday and Saturday; but Sunday through Wednesday, Howard rents out the space to fellow culinary entrepreneurs to use in whatever ways they need. She provides everything, including a licensed kitchen, music, oven, pots and pans, towels, cleaning supplies and Board of Health certifications—renters just have to bring the food.
 
Howard charges a flat rental fee for the use of The Kitchen Factory; she pays the taxes and renters pocket all of their proceeds. “It’s not about me, it’s about growth for other people,” she says.
 
She’s had two local businesses use her restaurant’s space so far: ANAO, a hummus company, and Life of Riley Foods, whose dressings, nut butters, spreads and sauces are available at Park+Vine. José, a pop-up taqueria, has also rented The Kitchen Factory for a one-night only restaurant.
 
A varied life of food
A rock-and-roll singer and musician, Howard's path to The Kitchen Factory was far from traditional. “I was raised on TV dinners, but I wanted to eat real food,” says Howard, 53. She didn’t go to culinary school, but is actively kitchen-trained from the school of knives and burns.
 
The Cincinnati native attended Hughes High School’s City-Wide Learning Community, a school without walls that allowed her to take classes at places like the University of Cincinnati and the Cincinnati Zoo. Many of the students she knew at City-Wide are entrepreneurs like her, she says.
 
As a 35-year vegetarian, she's proud to note that all of The Kitchen Factory’s produce is purchased at Findlay Market—Howard believes in using local, in-season ingredients whenever possible. "I buy from the face, not the case," she says.
 
“I’ve always cooked and eaten whole foods I can pronounce,” Howard says. “I’ve never been a Velveeta girl.”
 
In 1979, Howard took a job aboard the now-docked Mississippi Queen riverboat as a cook. She floated up and down the Mississippi River for a year and a half; she then worked and lived in New Orleans for five years. She came back to Cincinnati in 1985 and worked as a recording engineer for two days.

“I was told I was on the wrong side of the glass,” she says.
 
In 1989, she began playing in local bands. Howard was in the all-girl band The Murkins, and has been a member of the Fairmount Girls for about 15 years. Today, she’s a member of the acoustic group My Wife the Tiger; the all-girl band Pill Bug; and is a back-up singer for the long-running Wolvertine Brothers. She plays the Farfisa organ in the Fairmount Girls, the guitar for Pill Bug and sings in all of the groups.
 
Howard took her love of music a step further last year when she was contacted by School of Rock in Mason. Much like the Jack Black movie School of Rock, the program teaches kids ages 12 to 17 how to perform in rock shows. Howard is the school's vocal instructor and show director. “I don’t have kids, and in a way, I’m living through them,” she says. “They’re really great, and it’s fantastic to watch these kids shred and transform into a rock band.”
 
But it was her own touring days that cemented Howard's love of healthy foods. While on the road with Fairmount Girls, Howard realized healthy food often wasn’t readily available, so she started bringing her own food, and eventually, the band’s food, too. The then-booker at Southgate House asked if Howard had ever thought of cooking for rock bands, which led her to start Bedrock, a bed and breakfast out of her own home. Visiting bands paid for the food but the bed was free, with the expectation that when Howard and her band visited, they would have a place to stay.
 
In 2007, Howard was the kitchen manager at Melt in Northside. During her four years there, she made connections with Danny Korman, owner of Park+Vine. She created the menu for the vegan lunch counter at the Over-the-Rhine shop, including the mac n’ cheese, lovingly called “crack n’ cheese” by regulars. Howard still cooks for the lunch counter, although she is no longer there on a daily basis.
 
After leaving Melt, Howard began looking for her own kitchen, but she couldn’t find one in her price range. She originally thought about starting a food truck, but at the time, she worried about restrictive city regulations. She decided a restaurant suited her better.
 
Then one day, Howard was in the parking lot at Clifton Natural Foods, and an acquaintance told her there was a space for rent at 1609 Chase Avenue. “It was available for exactly how much I had to spend on a space,” says Howard, who makes the vegan crust used at The Kitchen Factory from scratch. Not all the pizzas are vegan, but there is a vegan pizza, she says, with vegan cheese and BBQ tofu.

One of her specialities are Winkies, which are vegan twists on Twinkies made by a local baker. “I didn’t plan on a pizza parlor, but I wanted to continue with what used to be there, and make changes as I went.”
 
She wants to build out the kitchen space so that cooks inside can be visible from the sidewalk outside as a way to attract more renters and grow her business. One of her key missions is to "pamper the cook."
 
By Caitlin Koenig
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