ack in early 2011, there was a guy making pulled-pork barbecue sandwiches on Fountain Square in the worst weather ever. During the coldest, wettest spring in memory, followed by the hottest, driest, most unbearable summer, this curly-haired, fair-skinned, fully sunburned guy stood over a blazing flattop grill, heating up scoops of hickory-smoked pork shoulder, cutting up the big chunks with a pizza slicing wheel. He was clearly insane. People bought the food out of pity for this madman in a sweat-stained Reds cap, who was crazy enough to be there, day after miserable day, selling sandwiches for a measly five bucks.
They may have bought the first one out of pity, but they came back, time and again, because it was the best damn $5 lunch in all of downtown. Eli’s Barbeque, then served weekdays on Fountain Square, weekends at Findlay Market and random nights outside bars full of hungry, amiable drunks, developed a cult of devotion so strong that when he left the Square to open a brick-and-mortar sit-down restaurant on Eastern Avenue, tears were shed. But even after there was an actual kitchen, vinyl records and metal flatware, the sandwiches stayed $5 and they stayed amazing.
“It’s better now,” Elias Leisring yells over the clatter of mid-day kitchen sounds during the lunch rush on a recent weekday. Leisring is not supposed to be here; he has a baby due at any moment. Leisring grabs a juicy forkful of meat straight off the flattop — no longer portable — plunks it into a paper bowl and hands it over. “Right?”
He’s right. It’s even juicier, retaining those random crispy bits that make the texture just perfect against the almost-too-salty but deep, warm spicy flavor of the sauce, on a buttered, grilled bun. And with a full roster of vegetarian sides, from mac-and-cheese to jalapeno grits, everyone can enjoy Eli’s even if they can’t enjoy the barbecue.
It is now pure winter — less than 10 degrees outside — and the walls around the dining room make a whole lot of sense. Leisring, his business partner Drew Simmons, their friends and their employees are all happy with the way the madman’s crazy, sweaty plan has come to fruition.
This 29-seat eatery spawned from those early days hawking sandwiches around town, and it has already expanded outward — literally with the addition of outdoor tent seating — from its humble home on Eastern Avenue into new endeavors such as manning the outdoor patio grill at Neons Unplugged in Over-the-Rhine.
“It really started at Bonnaroo,” Leisring explains. There may have been some sort of altered consciousness involved.
“There were like 100,000 people there, and they each had a couple hundred bucks to spend. I had no money and I started thinking, how could I get this mass of people to each spend a little bit of their money to get something they really want? I don’t need to get a lot of a few peoples’ money. I need a little of a lot of peoples’ money. And people need to eat.”
An subconsciousness channeling of McDonald’s Ray Kroc? While Leisring’s early thoughts sound a little like the pioneer hamburger magnate, there were no golden arches over his griddle. There’s no corporate mentality at Eli’s. Leisring and Simmons let their crew dress how they like, listen to the music they want to hear, make decisions. They have hired some of the staff from their East End neighborhood, and they’re proud of how their employees have grown. Their business model, though, for all of their anti-conglomerate mindset, is very sophisticated. Its most important feature is its keen focus.
“We’re building incrementally,” Simmons says. “Everything we do is scalable. We started with one smoker, then grew to two; with two employees, then grew to four. It’s slow and consistent.”
Simmons and Leisring met when Leisring was slinging barbecue outside a Mount Adams bar. Simmons used to come out and buy five or six sandwiches at a time for his fellow bartenders. After a late Friday, Leisring asked Simmons if he’d like to help out at Findlay Market the next morning, not knowing that Simmons lived in Walton, Ky. Instead of going home, Simmons slept overnight on a park bench at the Market so he’d be there for work the next day. When Leisring had no savings to start Eli’s, Simmons cashed in his 401k. Though there’s a variation of Leisring’s name over the door, he insists that, “It’s not me; it’s not Drew. It’s us.”
Simmons has a theory of their success.
“Five bucks is not a big gamble,” he says. “For five bucks, people will give it a try. It’s accessible. People might never try more expensive restaurants because it’s just too big a risk. It’s hard for those restaurants to live up to the dollar expectation.”
“Not every restaurant needs to put out a ‘dining experience,’” Leisring adds. “People can’t make food at home as cheap as they can eat here. It’s like a classic ‘blue plate special’ that appeals to everybody. We make food we like, and everybody likes to sit and eat together, take their shoes off, metaphorically,” he says, laughing.
When they were named in Cincinnati Magazine’s Top 10 best restaurants list early this year, Leisring took it in stride.
“I was really excited, of course. It was a great list of very talented chefs and great restaurants that I have always liked,” he says. “I don’t consider myself personally in the same league as those guys. I don’t have the same level of experience in cuisine. But I would put smoking meat and making grits to the Pepsi challenge with any of them chef-coat guys any day of the week.”
Simmons and Leisring break into stories of people who come in to eat while they’re on-the-clock or off-the-radar. They realize they’d better not get their customers in trouble, and they shut up. But they can’t stop smiling.
“Everybody with five bucks is our customer,” Leisring says. “Young, old, people from the Water Works, people from the country club. Yeah, the record player and the old floors make it quirky, but the food and the value, that’s real.
“We have fun doing it, and if it’s not fun, we’re not doing it,” he continues. “People come to us and ask, ‘Would we want to open an Eli’s at Tri-County Mall?’ Not fun; not doing it.”
One new venture: They are helping the people behind Fireside Pizza, a food truck they encountered at Findlay Market, open a restaurant this coming spring in the historic Firehouse 16 on East McMillan Avenue in East Walnut Hills. They were approached to open a new Eli’s there, but they didn’t think it was a good fit.
“What we have, it’s unique,” Leisring says. “Fireside, they are good people, unique in their own way, too. We worked alongside Mike [Marschman, Fireside’s owner] and his crew at Findlay Market and other gypsy food moments lost in time. Their pizza is incredibly good. We’re just helping them with the experience we have, to do their own thing. They have a business, but they need incubation and introduction to the right people. If they succeed, it strengthens the whole area and helps create a thriving city.”
Leisring and Simmons say they will grow Eli’s at Findlay Market next summer, but their plans are still in the works. There will be a sit-down option. And there will be music — an important element of what they do.
Since they started their business in tents and farmers markets, they knew a lot of people in the music festival business. They catered at Cincinnati’s Bunbury and were approached to cater the Mayesfest Bluegrass festival in Bellevue, Ky., last summer.
“Since it was Bluegrass, and on a boat, we said, ‘Why not sponsor it?’ That way we can include musicians we really like — Al Scorch and the Downtown County Band. We’ll grow it bigger next year,” Leisring says.
They recently helped Scorch press a vinyl record. It’s another of the ways they leverage Eli’s popularity to help other creatives succeed.
“We frequently support local and traveling musicians, MidPoint, Bunbury, Mayesfest and local high school music programs,” Leisring says. “It’s is a very easy way for us to spend what would be traditional marketing dollars but in a way that positively affects the community and peoples’ lives in general.”
That’s a significant overlap. Some of their decisions are magnanimous — like issuing an invitation to food trucks to come serve at the restaurant after their power suddenly went out, so customers didn’t go away hungry — and also really smart business.
When Leisring explains what makes Eli’s unique, he talks about passion, people, perseverance and a “myriad of other uncomfortable human emotions.”
“Our spot is indicative of an awakening that is happening across our country as a whole,” he says. “People are realizing that their grandparents’ America has been plundered and replaced with a fake. This is a big reason I believe people come to Eli’s. Yes, the food is cheap and delicious. However, it’s traditional, and people are yearning for genuine family tradition, and I don’t think they even know it. In fact, I don’t think they even realize that is what they love about Eli’s so much. But I watch their eyes light up when they walk in the door. We let people do what they want and let them do something for themselves. This feeling of freedom, like the feeling when your campsite is set up and there is nothing left but to build the fire, is far and few between in our new fancy-pants universe.”
ELI’S BBQ celebrates its anniversary at its East End location (3313 Riverside Drive) on Jan. 20. Restaurant open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. daily. More info: elisbarbeque.com.