Speaker Series highlights Cincinnati's collaborative food industry

Soapbox hosted another Speaker Series on Aug. 24 at Findlay Market. The event focused on Cincinnati’s innovative food ecosystem, which is being cultivated by budding food entrepreneurs and the organizations that provide the needed resources.
Attendees enjoyed dishes from Mandira Jacob of Oh Little Mustard Seed, Chef Dionne McCaskill-Alston of All Day Kitchen and Pantry and Tyler Retyi-Gazda of Grind on the Rhine, as well as beer from Christian Moerlein and Fab Ferments® Raw Kombucha Elderberry Ginger and Lemon Teas. All three chefs, which are products of Findlay Market and Findlay Kitchen, will be competing Chopped-style in the Recipes and a Dream event at the Cincinnati Food + Wine Classic later this month.

Oh Little Mustard Seed
Jacob specializes in South Indian cuisine, and is a small, faith-based catering and events company. She based the name of her business on the biblical parable of the mustard seed (Matthew 17:20): "...if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you." 

Not only is Jacob passionate about her food, but she's also passionate about putting a stop to human sex trafficking, and donates a portion of her proceeds to support global missions efforts and outreach programs.

All Day Kitchen and Pantry
Chef McCaskill-Alston has spent many years working in award-winning restaurants, and she's a certified Level One Cicerone. She's only been in Cincinnati for six months, but she got right to work launching All Day Kitchen and Pantry. She's utilizing Findlay Kitchen's resources to create more culinary opportunities for her business, as well as to prep food for catering and popup events.
Chef Dionne McCaskill-Alston of All Day Kitchen and Pantry focuses on farm-to-table dishes that are both fresh and healthy.
Grind on the Rhine
Retyi-Gazda and his business partner Josh Dickerson launched Grind on the Rhine in April at Findlay Market. They serve up grinder sandwiches on the weekends from a popup tent that they rent from Findlay Kitchen. Their dream is to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant, but the pair first seek open and honest feedback from customers at their popup stand. Grind on the Rhine served up barbecue pork sliders that were topped with apple slaw and a homemade mango-habanero barbecue sauce made by Retyi-Gazda.
Mandira Jacob of Oh Little Mustard Seed and Tyler Retyi-Gazda, co-founder of Grind on the Rhine, both utilize space at Findlay Kitchen. Jacob's catering and events company specializes in South Indian cuisine, while Retyi-Gazda and his business partner Josh Dickerson serve up grinder sandwiches on weekends at Findlay Market.
Panelists Derrick Braziel, MORTAR co-founder; Marianne Hamilton, director of Findlay Kitchen; and Matt Madison, owner of Madisono’s Gelato, provided insight into Cincinnati’s food industry, while sisters and founders of the food blog Cooking with Caitlin and Wyoming's CWC, Caitlin Steininger and Kelly Trush, emceed the event.
So many food concepts fail, and not because the food is bad or the passion isn’t there. It’s because the owner wasn’t prepared and didn’t figure in extra costs. MORTAR and Findlay Kitchen, as well as other food entrepreneurs and incubators, can help figure out how to make ideas come to life, and innovate.
“There are people all around us who have the talents and skills to change the world,” Braziel says. “MORTAR is starting to change the culture in Cincinnati, and show people that you can be successful if you have access to the resources.”
By the end of the year, MORTAR will have served 100 entrepreneurs, such as Jasmine Ford, who is planning to open Jazzy Sweeties, a storefront bakery, in Walnut Hills. Findlay Kitchen, which opened in April, currently has 38 members, but has the capacity to have about 90.
Incubating ideas
Findlay Kitchen is an 8,000-square-foot, shared-use kitchen that houses 10 commercial kitchens, with room to grow. It provides three things that are huge barriers for many food entrepreneurs: a licensed kitchen space, equipment and storage space.
It also partners with other organizations in the city to help members start, grow and sustain their food-based business.
“There is so much opportunity here,” Hamilton says. “The more we can focus and support what people want to do and keep the momentum going, the more we can create opportunities for people who might not have them. We’ve just hit the tip of the iceberg.”
MORTAR focuses on the intangibles of starting a business — the hidden costs, unanswered questions. The organization’s passion is helping socioeconomically underserved entrepreneurs, including but not limited to food entrepreneurs. Braziel says that MORTAR wants to say “yes” when everyone else says “no.”
“In many African-American families, food is the soul of the home, and recipes have been around for generations,” he says. “Someone might have a great idea, but we want to make sure they’re putting the work in and are willing to keep putting the work in.”
Community is key to growth
Madison urges other food entrepreneurs to have a vision, and be able to voice where they’re coming from and where they want to go.
“As a food community, we need to know how we can support you and who else we can get to help you,” he says. “You might have a passion but no network, and if your idea is your passion and you want to do it, then go all in.”
That type of collaboration is essential to entrepreneurs — a community is a safe space where you can get honest feedback about your food, and it can help you grow.
Madison started his gelato concept 10 years ago at Findlay Market; through feedback and countless revamps, his product line is in 39 Kroger stores in the area, and local restaurants are using his vanilla gelato to create their own desserts.
Not only are other food entrepreneurs willing to pass on information and contacts, but they want to help other local businesses succeed as well. There has always been collaboration between Findlay Market and its vendors and farmers, and now so many of Findlay Kitchen’s members are wanting to source local and are working directly with the growers and producers at the Market.
“Speak with your dollars,” Hamilton says. “Local dollars help support the local economy by providing jobs. It’s the only way to keep our ecosystem going."
What’s next?
Braziel isn’t originally from Cincinnati, but he can see the opportunity here. He’s impressed with what he’s seeing, but would love to see something like a test restaurant or food truck where food entrepreneurs can rent it out and test their concepts.
“I’ve had the amazing opportunity to see the city transform,” he says. “I feel that we’re on the brink of something huge.”

The Soapbox Speaker Series co-produced “Cincinnati’s Food Innovation Economy” in partnership with Findlay Market with generous support from Procter & Gamble. 

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Read more articles by Caitlin Koenig.

Caitlin Koenig is a Cincinnati transplant and 2012 grad of the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri. She's the department editor for Soapbox Media and currently lives in Northside with her husband, Andrew, and their three furry children. Follow Caitlin on Twitter at @caite_13.