ArtWorks "Big Pitch" finalists: MadHouse Vinegar and SKT Ceramics

MadHouse Vinegar

Like many friendships, Justin Dean and Richard Stewart were bonding over local beer.

The difference was, for these two entrepreneurs, it wasn’t enjoying pints of beers that bonded them. It was the beer by-products. Both were taking used grains from MadTree Brewing to use in other ways: Dean for feeding hogs and Stewart for composting.

“We'd hang around the brewery, talking with the crew there,” Stewart says. “And we’d watch them take the remaining wort, which is the sugary liquid used to make beer, from each batch of beer and empty it down the drain.”

Watching this happen gave Dean and Stewart the idea to use these leftovers to develop an artisanal malt vinegar, and the MadHouse Vinegar Company was born.

Vinegar manufacturing used to be a local process. “Go back in time 150 years ago, and you would find small batch vinegar production happening in every small town,” Stewart says. “Vinegar was specific to the place in which they were created, as we expect wine to be. But mass production ended all of that.”

While the vinegar market has a fairly copy, paste, and repeat approach, the owners of MadHouse take pride in the fact that they’ve revived the artisanal approach.

“I've been on a quest to build a regional food culture that is recognized by the rest of this country as being world-class,” Stewart says. “Great food inspires me. I make the raw ingredients, the building blocks, that chefs need to make great food.”

Fast-forward four years later, MadHouse is producing their own wine bases and acquiring beer and wine from local businesses to make a wide range of unique vinegar. They also are one of eight finalists for the fifth annual ArtWorks’ Big Pitch presented by U.S. Bank, where they will compete for a $15,000 Judge’s Choice Award and the Audience Choice Award during a live five-minute pitch on September 25 at Memorial Hall.

The award money would help MadHouse build a more efficient filling line for distribution in the Midwest and select locations on both coasts.

Through the Big Pitch mentorship program, MadHouse has been working with two mentors, Brittney Taylor of U.S. Bank and Matt Madison, owner of Madisono’s Gelato and Sorbetto. Working with these mentors has provided new insight on food distribution, marketing and financial forecasting.

Stewart’s enthusiasm for vinegar and local food culture is infectious. “We make vinegar that brightens any food and makes any dish exponentially more complex, while creating a more flavorful and sustainable community,” he says.

SKT Ceramics

At the SKT Ceramics booth at Findlay Market, shoppers come to check out the business’s signature bowls, mugs and kitchenware — all adorned with the detailed illustrations hand-drawn by owner Susannah Tisue.  

“I want to create small works of art that can have a big impact on your life,” Tisue says of the pieces that all include her own line drawings of animals, local landmarks, and more.

Each piece is meticulously crafted using pottery techniques invented thousands of years ago. “People are drawn to the pieces because of the high quality and the level of detail,” Tisue says.  

Founded in 2009, SKT Ceramics has been growing and is now one of eight finalists for the fifth annual ArtWorks’ Big Pitch presented by U.S. Bank, where they will compete for a $15,000 Grand Prize business grant and the Audience Choice Award during a live five-minute pitch on September 25 at Memorial Hall.

Tisue’s main business focus is expanding the manufacturing capability of the business—a desire she has from collaborating several years ago with a large retailer to produce similar items.  

“I saw what a mass-produced version of my pottery looked like, and I didn’t want that,” she says.

After seven years in Brooklyn and two years renting studio space at Queen City Clay, SKT Ceramics is ready to move into its permanent location in Walnut Hills. The 9,000-square-foot studio space has one major item missing.

A kiln.

The $15,000 in prize money would cover the down payment for their own energy-efficient computerized gas kiln that will ensure the consistency of their products and improve the safety conditions for Tisue and her employees.  

“With this new kiln, everything will fire consistently,” she says. “When the pieces don’t come out properly, it is frustrating because we’ve put in so much time. (With the kiln) we’ll be able to improve the quality of the pieces and make it safer to produce with less impact on the environment.”

As a Big Pitch finalist, Tisue has been working with two mentors, Tarita Preston and Michael Howard, to improve her business, including strategy, scheduling and communications. “They have been amazing,” Tisue says. “I went to art school, so all my business habits are what I’ve picked up and adjusted over time. The mentors help us dig deep and be accountable every week.”

Tisue is excited for the future. “We’ve been in business for 10 years now, and I found our hard-working crew inspiring. We’re producing at a higher level now. I love that we’re able to continually push ourselves with new forms and new illustrations.”

How to Attend the ArtWorks’ Big Pitch presented by U.S. Bank:

ArtWorks’ Big Pitch presented by U.S. Bank returns for a fifth year at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 25, at Memorial Hall. Eight of Greater Cincinnati's up-and-coming creative entrepreneurs will each deliver a five-minute pitch in front of a panel of judges and a live audience to compete for a $15,000 Grand Prize and the Audience Choice Award.

Tickets start at $10 and are available here.
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