Food innovation scene helps feed Cincinnati's urban renaissance

For many of us, the entrepreneurial explosion across Cincinnati’s urban core — especially in Over-the-Rhine — is as much about new restaurants as it is about startup companies.
Innovation isn’t found only in Cintrifuse’s Union Hall, The Brandery and various new design, software and retail businesses. You could easily say that OTR’s reputation for innovation is earned from the independent chef-owned restaurants along and near Vine Street as well.
And many would argue that Findlay Market’s re-emergence as a destination shopping experience and innovation hub is as important to OTR’s redevelopment as any repopulated brewery or rejuvenated park.
“I personally think Cincinnati has one of the most underrated culinary scenes in America,” Mortar Managing Director Derrick Braziel says. “All over the city we’re seeing restaurateurs piloting truly unique concepts to great success, and even export them to different markets. And with food-centered incubators such as Findlay Kitchen or the NKY Incubator Kitchen helping to support entrepreneurs, I think it’s only the beginning of our renaissance.”
Cincinnati native Keith Pandolfi agreed, making the case in Savuer Magazine last year that Cincinnati should be considered the country’s “next big food city.”
Soapbox Media is organizing a panel discussion of our exciting food innovation scene and its impact on the local economy on Aug. 24, hosted by Findlay Kitchen and sponsored by Procter & Gamble. The 5-8 p.m. event includes tours of Findlay Kitchen and food sampling from Findlay Kitchen member startups (see details below).
Panelists will include Findlay Kitchen Director Marianne Hamilton, Madisono’s Gelato founder Matt Madison, and Braziel, whose Mortar incubator classes have helped launch a number of minority-owned food businesses.
Findlay Market opened its nonprofit incubator kitchen in March as both a response to Cincinnati’s entrepreneurial explosion and a practical tool to encourage growth and innovation. Its 8,000-square-foot space houses 10 separate industrial kitchens so a number of entrepreneurs can co-exist and create at the same time.
“There has been incredible support from the community at large, everyone from enthusiastic food-loving individuals to established organizations looking to see what the next new trend is,” Hamilton says. “So many are willing to lend their time and expertise and to help open doors for our members. It’s been especially heartwarming to see firsthand the tight-knit Findlay Kitchen member community forming among our entrepreneurs.”
Food entrepreneurs — with or without prior industry experience — can become Findlay Kitchen members and rent space by the hour or day, with 24/7 access. Partnerships provide members with information and mentorship around business concepts such as insurance, marketing, labeling, product distribution and food safety.
Findlay Kitchen joined with ArtWorks this summer to offer a modified version of ArtWorks’ Co-Starters program, expanding the business development curriculum to include food-specific scenarios. The first Co-Starters Kitchen class graduated July 19.
“We’re always looking for ways to add valuable programming and services for our members, which could be classes, forums, discounted workshops, etc.,” Hamilton says. “The Co-Starters program was something that we felt would be incredibly beneficial to our entrepreneurs, but we wanted it to really help walk them through some of the food-related red tape. Based on feedback from everyone involved, we’re proud to say it was highly successful and we’re already planning for the second class.”
Beyond working out recipes on professional-grade equipment and learning the business end of starting a food operation, Findlay Kitchen members are looking to Hamilton for help getting in front of potential customers. She’s developed a three-tier path for those ready for real world feedback:

• Access to Findlay Market merchants who might be a good fit to wholesale the new food product;

• Selling the product at Findlay’s local-only store, Dirt: A Modern Market; and

• Setting up in one of Findlay Market’s two fully equipped and licensed booth spaces over a weekend.
At that point, once the product and/or service concept has been tested and finalized, entrepreneurs are ready to go out on their own.
“These are all prime testing grounds for new products and a perfect way to begin generating brand awareness,” Hamilton says. “For those members who are ready to take their business to the next phase, we’re also working on plans to be able to help expedite that process and connect them to the right people. The same goes for members whose products work best in a wholesale or institutional buying channel. Our hope is that we can help to foster the right environments and connections that will enable food entrepreneurs to see their own version of success, whatever that may be.”
Findlay Kitchen didn’t exist when Madison launched his gelato brand in 2006, nor were incubator programs like Co-Starters available to provide budding entrepreneurs with instructions and mentors. But he says today’s food innovators are chasing the same two targets he’s been focused on for 10 years: quality and opportunity.
Matt Madison 
“Opportunity is always there, but knowing where to look is key,” Madison says. “Consumers expect quality, craft and something unique. The obvious with a twist is sometimes the differentiating factor between consumer acceptance and rejection.”
Operating in a city known for its Graeter’s, UDF and Aglamesis ice cream brands, Madison’s first twist was to produce high-quality Italian gelato and sorbet from all-natural ingredients. His next twist was to expand into retail sales in a big way, selling pints at area Krogers, Jungle Jim’s and Whole Foods and serving his products at more than 50 area restaurants.
Madison is certainly further along in his business plan than startups perfecting recipes at Findlay Kitchen, but he appreciates that any business needs friends, partners and mentors at every step of the journey.
“I think Cincinnati offers plenty of room for business expansion,” he says. “The headquarters of the nation’s largest grocery store retailer, Kroger, is located downtown, with opportunity to start locally and expand regionally or nationally there for anyone with the moxie. I think the key for any food entrepreneur is to define ‘next level.’ A clear vision of where you want to go is the first step in charting the course.”
Incubator and accelerator programs like UpTech, Ocean, Bad Girl Ventures, Co-Starters and First Batch have worked with food entrepreneurs in recent years, but Mortar has graduated more than most. Geared toward helping minority and low-income entrepreneurs and businesses succeed, the organization hosts startup classes in OTR and Walnut Hills.
Braziel says he understands why so many food entrepreneurs seek out Mortar classes.
Derrick Braziel 
“For many minorities, food is a way of life,” he says. “For most of us, it’s the one place where we’ve felt the most quintessential of human emotions — family, love, joy. These food-preneurs have been cooking and passing down delicious recipes for years, without any sort of idea that it could be translated into a business.”
Recent Mortar graduates include Jamerisol Soul Food, which opened a stand at Findlay Market; Sweets & Meats BBQ, which purchased a trailer to set up at local events; Jazzy Sweeties, a bakery set to open a storefront in Walnut Hills; Aunt Flora’s Cobbler, a Findlay Market regular; and Paleolicious Cincy, which just last weekend featured its health food menu at Mortar’s pop-up shop on Vine Street, Brick OTR.
“We’re lucky to work with some of the most talented people in the region, and our stomachs should be grateful,” Braziel says.
So should Greater Cincinnati’s economy.
The Soapbox Speaker Series presents “Cincinnati’s Food Innovation Economy” from 5-8 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 24, at the Findlay Market Farm Shed in Over-the-Rhine. Admission is free thanks to generous support from Procter & Gamble. Guided tours of Findlay Kitchen are available from 5-6 p.m. and 7-8 p.m. A panel discussion on Cincinnati’s food innovation scene starts at 6 p.m., featuring Findlay Kitchen Director Marianne Hamilton, Madisono’s Gelato founder Matt Madison and Mortar Managing Director Derrick Braziel.
Samples will be available from local food startups Grind on the Rhine, All Day Kitchen & Pantry and Oh Little Mustard Seed. All three will be competing next month at the Cincinnati Food + Wine Classic. Madisono’s Gelato and a selection of drinks will also be available. Register for free tickets here.
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John Fox is an experienced freelance writer and editor who served as managing editor of Soapbox from December 2014 to August 2016.