The Well-Fed City: How an urban market revitalized a neighborhood

Cities are engines of our local and national economies, and centers of creativity, culture, and entertainment. But they are under more pressure than ever. This is the sixth in a monthly series, The Case for Cities, that will look at how Cincinnati and similar cities can grow by becoming places of choice, as well as models of social justice.

Saturday afternoon at Findlay Market is a gourmand’s delight. A Saturday typically finds the market house teeming with shoppers, maybe mulling the goetta or chops at Eckerlin Meats,  the fresh butter and fudge at J.E. Gibbs, or the grouper at Luken’s.

If one tires of shopping, there’s sustenance available – tea at Churchill’s, a deli sandwich from Silverglade’s, Rhinegeist in the beer garden, or espresso at Dojo Gelato.  A trip to the Market is a gustatory delight.

But it wasn’t always that way.

Like many city markets around the country, Findlay Market suffered a long, slow decline in the latter years of the 20th century. By the year 2000, the market house was half empty and falling apart. The number of visitors had declined to a few hundred a day, barely enough to keep the lights on.

A decision had to be made. Pull the plug on a historic market that had been in business since 1855, or invest and revive it.

The decision was made to save the Market, starting with restructuring the management, taking it out of the hands of City Hall’s bureaucracy, and putting it under the purview of a new, not-for-profit organization – the Corporation for Findlay Market.  The new management would seek city, state, federal, and private grants to fix the place up, and recruit new merchants.

Over the course of a decade or so, the Market came alive again. It became a destination, as the number of visits grew from a low of 250,000 a year to 1.2 million today, with shoppers and food tourists coming from more than 10 counties around the region.

Its success had led to an even larger role in urban life. Findlay Market became more than a place to spend a Saturday browsing the aisles. Its popularity sparked new investment in the surrounding neighborhood, the Northern Liberties section of Over-the-Rhine, a tract that had also seen decline over the decades. Dining options in the Market environs now include Jean Robert's French Crust, Goose and Elder, Eli’s barbecue and Pho Lang Thang.

It’s also become fertile ground for the independent food ecosystem here, acting as a partner, accelerator, and adviser for food entrepreneurs, many of whom have brought new concepts, flavors, and faces to the region.

It's part of the Market's mission.

“We place a major emphasis on creating new opportunities for those that often do not have the same access to resources or capital in the food scene that others might enjoy,” says Joe Hansbauer, president and CEO.

Two programs created and sponsored by the Market help support and train food entrepreneurs, with an emphasis on women, people of color, and immigrants.

Findlay Kitchen is an 8,000 square foot incubator, space enough for 10 working kitchens to  allow food entrepreneurs to rent time by the hour to figure out whether they have viable businesses.
“It gives them a place, as a health department-approved facility, that allows them to make the products that they want to make and take them to market, whether that is Findlay Market, public events, catering, or something else,” Hansbauer says.

Over five years, Findlay Kitchen has hosted more than 200 startups. Some have graduated into into their own brick-and-mortar locations. More than 60 businesses currently operate out of the kitchen, Hansbauer says, and more than 90% of them are owned by women, minorities, or immigrants, with more than 40% Black-owned.

Two startups in the Findlay Launch program, Herban Vegans and The Empanada's Box.After the Kitchen, entrepreneurs may be ready to test their ideas and business model in a storefront location. Findlay Launch is an accelerator program that provides storefront space around the market under a short-term lease to see how the business works in practice.

“It takes the incubator kitchen and puts it into a full-time storefront,” Hansbauer says.

Findlay Launch includes an eight-week curriculum to learn the business side of food, including hiring and firing, accounting, social media, advertising, and brand building. The business then moves into a storefront for nine months to put all that into practice. It’s an opportunity for chefs and others who’ve been attracted to the creative side of the restaurant business to practice the business side at relatively low risk.

“Sometimes they decide that this was not quite as fun as they thought it was going to be,” Hansbauer says. “Starting a full-time business might not be what they want to do next.”

For Lucas Nunez and his uncle, Diego, the Findlay Launch experience confirmed their plans to open their own shop serving empanadas, a staple of their native country, Argentina.

Diego is a chef who has created empanadas at stores in Beverly Hills, Calif. and Miami for more than 20 years. When a hurricane in Florida forced his employer there to close, he began searching the internet want ads to see if anyone else needed an empanada chef. Turns out the owner of Over-the-Rhine Argentinian eatery Che was looking for just such an expert.

“So he flew out with his wife, they saw the restaurant, they loved the city, and they said ‘Yeah, let’s give it a try.’ So they moved here,” Lucas relates.

Diego convinced his nephew to join him six months later, and Lucas began driving a food truck for Che and its related restaurants. Things were going fine until the emergence of COVID-19 caused restaurants to lay off staff and regroup. But the two saw an opportunity.

“That’s when we decided, ‘Hey, let’s create our own company,’” Lucas says.

They started in Findlay Kitchen, using the equipment there and hosting pop-ups around the Market on weekends. That led to supplying a few coffee shops, and catering private events, and then an opportunity to join the Launch program.

The Empanada's Box offers dozens of varieties. They applied, took the nine-week food entrepreneurship course and opened The Empanadas Box in September, serving dozens of varieties of the finger food, ranging from Cajun to Chicago-style to Cincinnati chili-inspired.     

The Nunez’s are now planning their exit from Launch, and scouting sites for a permanent location.

Findlay Launch propelled the new enterprise on its way, Lucas says. “Not only do you learn essential tools to grow your business, but you also get to make connections in the city,” he says.

The Market also offers a program called Findlay Culinary Training, a 16-week formal hands-on experience in fine dining for those interested in a career in food service. It includes four weeks in a classroom, followed by 12 weeks working in a Over-the-Rhine restaurant, called Mighty Good, that the Market owns and operates.

After 12 weeks in the restaurant, the students graduate to begin their careers. The program is back after going on hiatus during the pandemic.

"This is an opportunity to connect local residents to the Market directly and help them be a part of this rising ship and culinary scene,” Hansbauer says. “It is also a support to our food entrepreneurs. One of the major challenges in operating a food-related business is having the talent and resources necessary in order to run your business. We are looking to continue to play a role in that.”

You can read earlier articles in The Case for Cities series here.

You can view and listen to The Case for Cities conversation series here.

The Case for Cities: Cities of Choice are Cities of Justice series is a partnership between UC School of Planning and Soapbox Cincinnati, made possible with support from The Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr. Foundation.

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Read more articles by David Holthaus.

David Holthaus is an award-winning journalist and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading, or watching classic movies.