The art of business: Over-the-Rhine's creative entrepreneurs

Over the last decade, Over-the-Rhine has become a mecca for small business owners from across the city. “There was a time when you couldn’t get lunch downtown on the weekend,” says business owner Zach Darmanian. “Now Vine Street’s like a food court — you can eat from wherever you want.”

A plethora of dining options aren't the only businesses taking up residency in Cincinnati's historic district. Creative entrepreneurs with degrees in the arts have chosen to set up shop in OTR — many of them have been on the ground running before the ink dried on their diplomas. But as OTR’s popularity increases, so too does the price to be there.

How do young artists find success in the ever-popular neighborhood? It may seem a daunting, if not impossible, task to fledgling young creators, but these business owners have defied the "starving artist" archetype to allow themselves to pursue their ambitious professional aspirations.

Growing and scaling at the "right time"

Darmanian, a 2010 DAAP graduate with a degree in industrial design, co-owns Such and Such with business partner Alex Aeschbury. Such and Such works with business owners on furniture, interior design and signage, among many other industrial design needs. The venture began as part of the pair's senior thesis. “It was in the works in the spring of 2010 and we opened in 2011,” Darmanian says.When the guys at Such and Such take on a project, they immerse themselves in every aspect of it. (Photo: Michael Woodson)

Their first location was Losantiville on Main Street, where other DAAP graduates were also working on creative projects. Darmanian says that working in that space was one of the best decisions they made.

“It kept our overhead super low; we were working with other DAAP graduates who were also working on creative businesses, so we were able to share tools and ideas," Darmanian reminises. "Also just being on Main Street let us participate in Final Friday events, so we had people coming in to see our stuff and talk to us. That was a really good introduction to the city for us.”

They stayed at Losantiville for two years until Such and Such moved to its current location at 1709 Central Ave. in 2014.

Such and Such recently participated in DesignBuildCincy, Cincinnati’s curated showcase of local design and craftsmanship, and previously participated in the aforementioned Final Friday. But most of their marketing comes from direct outreach. “Most of our clients are new businesses or existing businesses that are expanding,” Darmanian says. “When we hear somebody’s opening up, we’ll send an email saying, 'Hey, we’d like you to consider Such and Such. These are the services we offer.’ And then we do shop tours. We have 10,000 square feet of woodworking, metalworking, laser cutting, CNC routing…all of these toys to make stuff with. So we always try to get people down here to see that we’re making stuff in downtown Cincinnati. ‘Come see all our fun stuff we can make.’”

On the company’s creative process, Darmanian has one request: trust them. “We like to have full control over our projects. Our favorite projects are when we talk to an owner and they say, ‘We’re looking to do a store or a restaurant or a bar,’ and we get as much control as we can have. We have some strong opinions on aesthetics and design, and the more control we can have, the more we can push that message that we want to send. That’s what we’re always fighting for. Let us design all of it. Let us pick your floors or your wall colors. The whole deal.”

Moving from for-profit design work to nonprofit arts resource

Alisha Budkie also graduated from DAAP in 2009 with a degree in industrial design. She is the executive director of the nonprofit art resource store Indigo Hippo, but she started her OTR tenure with a different business venture.Alisha Budkie, executive director of Indigo Hippo (Provided)

“Indigo Hippo evolved from other work,” she says. “I started Smartfish Footwear and co-founded Crafty Supermarket six years ago. From seeing what the local creative community was doing from the bird’s eye perspective of Crafty Supermarket, I really felt like we needed another material resource in the city.”

She shifted gears from footwear to art supplies full-time, and Indigo Hippo was born with a mission to make art supplies more affordable, allowing creative individuals easier access to their preferred materials.

“Originally I chose OTR because of what was happening on Main Street with Second Sunday on Main and the few small creative businesses that were on the street at the time," she says. "When I was looking for a space for Smartfish, it felt like a really good fit.”

Indigo Hippo participates in Final Friday too, and they’ve also been very involved in Second Sunday on Main. “We also do creative arts programming, which encourages the connection between creative exploration and human growth,” she says. “But a lot of our outreach comes from word-of-mouth, and we feel really lucky about that.”

Amy Tuttle, Indigo Hippo's director of programming, says the store is unique in its creative arts programming in two distinct ways: the focus on reusing materials and personal development for the community. “We have such a strong focus on resilience and grit-building that I think is awesome,” she says.

Storefront Director Emily Farison and manager Megan Harmeyer share similar sentiments, Farison calling her experience with Indigo Hippo a whirlwind of goodness. “To use skills and concepts I’m interested in, and being able to help people find what they want because of my art background — it’s just very cool that those all just meshed.”

“There are so many socio-economic barriers to all creativity, unfortunately, be it time or money or transportation,” says Harmeyer. “I feel like we’re meeting those barriers head-on.”

Tapping into resources to bring a dream to life

Though the creative aspects of their businesses came organically for both Darmanian and Budkie, financially, they required some support.

While still students, Darmanian and Aeschbury asked their DAAP professor Steve Dohler to teach an independent study course on entrepreneurship through industrial design. “That class helped us plan out what we wanted to do as far as business goes,” Darmanian says.

One of their first major clients also happened to become Such and Such’s meal ticket: they designed classroom furniture for ArtWorks. The pair also participated in ArtWorks CO.STARTERS, a nine-week program for creatives, artisans and lifestyle entrepreneurs to help put ideas into small business plans.

For Smartfish, Budkie went through Bad Girl Ventures (now known as Aviatra Accelerators), which is a local, all-female incubator. She also taught for ArtWorks CO.STARTERS and MORTAR, and through her teaching, she felt prepared to start plans for Indigo Hippo.

“You learn so much when you’re teaching. In a lot of ways, I felt like we were well set up to move forward with Indigo Hippo, and we were really lucky to have a lot of mentors and a lot of people in the nonprofit community, the local small business community and the local creative community that supported us and were there when we had questions.”

Both Darmanian and Budkie outgrew their spaces — Such and Such with Losantiville and Indigo Hippo at 1301 Main St. The store recently moved a few storefronts down, and now resides at 1334 Main.

Originally from Fort Lauderdale, Darmanian thought Such and Such would eventually move out of Ohio, but he decided to stay for the affordability and Cincinnati’s unique history.

“There’s this huge manufacturing base in Cincinnati that’s not really everywhere else,” he says. “Cincinnati’s really lucky that there was manufacturing here at some point, and there’s enough of it that stuck around today that you can draw upon.” The primary reason for staying in OTR, though, was cost. “We thought we were going to get set up and move to New York or to Florida, but for how little we were able to pay in rent and overhead, it was just really hard to beat.”

Indigo Hippo recently had a similarly difficult decision to make, and as the executive director, Budkie started looking for locations.

“I was worried about the move. Whenever you’re moving a business, there’s always that risk of losing your community. And that is so important to the hippos," she says, lovingly calling her community “hippos,” a tradition started by patrons. “We had volunteer move days, and posted about them on social media. When we had the first one, so many people showed up. That was the moment I realized we’re not going to lose our community. People are invested in being hippos.”

An echo between both Darmanian and Budkie is that sense of community felt among other OTR business owners. “It’s totally a community thing,” says Darmanian. “Everyone is looking out for each other. I’m still on the emerging emails list. If there’s ever something going on, everyone sends out an email making sure everyone’s aware of it. There’s definitely some camaraderie going on; everybody’s in it together.”

“I’m looking for a word to adequately describe it,” says Budkie, before coming to the same end: camaraderie. “Being a small business owner is difficult, and it’s not something that everyone understands. So there’s that automatic camaraderie. Like ‘All right, we’re all making it through this. If you ever need anything, I’m here.’"

Their advice for others is twofold: be prepared, and don’t do it alone. “It’s a long road,” Darmanian warns. “Prepare for it as best you can. Starting out, we would’ve had an easier go at it if we’d kept some part-time work that would’ve just paid the bills. We started with three partners right out of school. Nobody had savings. I think we went in with around $3,000 and were like, ‘We’re going to make a business.’ There wasn’t a lot of cushion there to have a bad month or anything.”

“You don’t have to do it all on your own,” Budkie says. “You don’t need to know everything; you won’t know everything. Know what you know well, and know what you don’t know. I feel like that’s the biggest difference between Smartfish and Indigo Hippo. I’m so grateful for the other hippos, and just with the way that this has grown, I just know that I couldn’t have done Indigo Hippo on my own.”

To learn more about Such and Such and Indigo Hippo, visit them online.

Read more articles by Michael Woodson.

Michael Woodson works at Blue Manatee Children’s Bookstore and is a freelance writer living in Saint Bernard with his husband and their Chihuahua. His writing credits include Artists Magazine, Pastel Journal, Watercolor Artist and VMSD magazine. See more of his pieces at his website,

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