Over the past year, a young local collective has been rising organically to fill a gap in Cincinnati’s nightlife and social scene by curating experiences for more diverse crowds.
Meraki Haus co-founder William Thomas II — also a founder of Mortar, an accelerator for underserved entrepreneurs, with hubs in Walnut Hills and OTR — is a steady promoter of Cincinnati, with the clear mission of empowering community members “to positively participate in the rise of [the city.]”
He and Meraki Haus partner Louis Rideout II describe the genesis of Meraki Haus as simply as “we found ourselves complaining” — a telltale sign and an unsatisfying place to linger when your life’s work is tied up in entrepreneurship. “We can either keep complaining about this or do something about it.”
They describe going out in bars and finding the same vibe over and over again, often with Top 40 songs playing like a broken record. People were showing up, drinks were being sold, and the vision seemed to end there. By and large, culture creation, or curation, was simply not happening. And there was little to no intentionality about drawing diverse crowds.
Enter Meraki Haus.
It began as a group of friends responding to the lack of musical diversity in Cincinnati’s downtown establishments. They acquired some DJ equipment and began putting some fresh sounds out there, with an affinity for what Thomas describes, tentatively, as “electro-soul.” It has since evolved into a quest to curate whole experiences that showcase diversity in people, music, and culture.
The collective takes over spaces for an evening — or an afternoon, in the case of their monthly brunch parties — and transforms them with a convivial vibe of their own making. A “pass the aux”-themed party invited folks to take turns DJ’ing the music, with the help of smartphone apps. Another recent concept — a pineapple-themed summer brunch series at Revel OTR Urban Winery — has been unfolding on a monthly basis, with overwhelmingly positive results.
The goal is to provide welcoming spaces to let loose and have fun. In the process, Meraki Haus is giving venue owners the opportunity to participate in this vision and to reach new clientele.
Informal invites happen through word-of-mouth and social media, among diverse groups of friends and colleagues. There is no website or advertising. Growth is organic, and the future is unknown, but there is a spoken desire to become an important cultural curator for Cincinnati, which also extends to “lifting up” local artists — DJs, live performers, and visual artists.
It seems fitting that the collective takes its name from the untranslatable Greek word meraki, which refers to the phenomenon of putting your heart and soul into what you do. “Because,” Thomas adds, “with everything you touch or do, you are leaving a part of yourself in it.”
This is the sort of energy and purposefulness with which Meraki Haus pops up around Cincinnati’s urban core and invites people in, both as attendees and participants.
Inspiration is drawn, in part, from other urban scenes where collective members have either lived or traveled. Rideout moved to Cincinnati from Detroit five years ago, and Thomas travels on a routine basis, with the area code “513” tattooed to his ring finger, lest he ever forget the city he is ultimately committed to.
As a professional photographer, Rideout photo-documents events and brings his faith in creative process to bear on the collective’s quest to curate fresh experiences. He describes it as a win-win situation — if you “go with your gut and just do it,” then you can learn a lot from how things shake out.
One thing that Meraki Haus has learned is that seeing new relationships forged through these gatherings is the heart and soul of what they do.