Pitch Perfect

ArtWorks Big Pitch finalists highlight local independent businesses


rlier this spring, area arts organization ArtWorks invited local established artists, designers, makers and overall creative entrepreneurs to participate in its second-annual Big Pitch competition. The competition matches local business owners with mentors and U.S. Bank small business specialists for a 10-week period and ends with the finalists presenting a five-minute pitch to a live audience and a panel of judges. The panel and audience vote for their favorites; the Grand Prize winner receives a $15,000 business grant, and the “Audience Choice” winner receives $5,000.

CityBeat caught up with the finalists during their mentorship period leading up to the Big Pitch main event on Aug. 27 to discuss their businesses and why they’re qualified to win the Big Pitch. Finalists include Rachel DesRochers of Grateful Grahams, a handmade vegan graham cracker shop dedicated to spreading the message of gratitude; Hayes Shanesy and Rosie Kovacs of Brush Factory, a handcrafted contemporary furniture shop utilizing regionally sourced hardwoods; James Marable of Original Thought Required, a contemporary Cincinnati-centric streetwear shop with limited-edition apparel by independent designers; Richard Hunt of Roebling Point Books & Coffee, a multi-use shop for bibliophiles, coffee lovers and creative thinkers; Jason Snell of We Have Become Vikings, a creative design and branding firm working in print and digital media with a Rock & Roll edge; Jess Sheldon of Cityscape Tiles (formerly known as Hazel Brown Photography), a photography business that specializes in city photo tiles; Jenifer Sult of Cut and Sewn, a crafty space that provides design, sewing and pattern-making services for fashion, soft goods and design entrepreneurs; and Allison Hines of Butcher Betties, a veteran-owned butcher shop specializing in locally raised, grass-fed, natural and pasteurized meats, cheeses and gourmet food products.

Rachel DesRochers of Grateful Grahams - Photo: Jesse Fox

Rachel DesRochers, founder, Grateful Grahams (and owner/founder of the Northern Kentucky Incubator Kitchen, a rental kitchen space for start-up food businesses)

CityBeat: Have you always been a baker?

Rachel DesRochers: I love to bake. I come from a long line of foodies; my great-grandfather started a restaurant chain and, you know, I guess part of the food is in my blood. And everybody loves to eat.

CB: Did you go into this wanting to create a sweet treat?

RD: Yes and no. For me, it’s the message. That’s what we’re about — we’re about spreading the message of gratitude, more so than anything else that we do. I was baking with a friend, and we had actually made graham crackers. And I thought, “Woah.” I mean, my mind was blown. I love to bake, and to have something that really was so different, you know — nobody eats a homemade graham cracker. And we’re not crackers. If you’ve had [Grateful Grahams], you know we’re soft and chewy and moist. We don’t break when you make a s’more. And so to have a treat that was unique, tasted good, a little different than the traditional and had a message behind it, it was the perfect thing. 

CB: Can you elaborate a little more on the message of gratitude?

RD: This message of gratitude is really stopping for a second and looking at everything that you do — every single thing, every single day, and the opportunities, the choices, the chances that we all have. It’s really looking at our lives and saying, “I can create my dream.” There’s not a right or wrong way to live a grateful life. Gratitude, in a spiritual sense, is kind of an enlightenment space. You just truly value every day.  

CB: Was that the idea behind founding the Northern Kentucky Incubator Kitchen?

RD: When I started, I had food companies that shared their kitchens with me, and when we moved into our own space in January 2013, I wanted to be able to offer that back. And we outgrew that kitchen, so when we moved into the kitchen we’re in now, which is 5,000-square-feet, I really wanted to brand the space. For me, it’s a way to give back — I’ve had so much help to get me where I am, let me help you, too. It’s a real community here. I currently have over 10 companies that rent space, and we work together, we talk together, we cry together. (Colleen McCroskey)

Hayes Shanesy of Brush Factory - Photo: Jesse Fox

Hayes Shanesy, co-owner, Brush Factory

CityBeat: Why did you guys decide to go into woodworking and interior design?

HS: I’ve been woodworking since I was a kid. I learned from my father, a master cabinet-maker and current Brush Factory craftsman. I’m most satisfied when I’m working through a construction or design problem, and designing and building furniture lends itself to solving many.  

CB: Where do you get the lumber for your projects? 

HS: We use domestic hardwoods for the majority of our furniture. We source our lumber from a local lumber supplier with exacting standards for quality and sustainable forestry practices. We’re passionate about our materials, and it’s important to us that our all-natural furniture is produced from lumber harvested the right way.  

CB: Why should people buy handmade furniture instead of going to IKEA? Is buying custom furniture a luxury?

HS: I believe that investing in a handmade object fulfills you in a more meaningful way than mass-produced imports, and that is true whether you’re talking about furniture or hamburgers. We make furniture that we intend to last a generation and believe that a real connection is made between the maker and customer. There is a sense of pride in making fine furniture for people that we know will spend hundreds of hours gathered around with their friends and families laughing, crying and living. Knowing the story of where your dining table or coffee table came from spreads a little joy each time you gather around it.  

CB: Broadly, what influences your craft?

HS: My sensibility for craftsmanship came from the house I grew up in, where all of the furniture was either made by my father, his friends, or really beautiful antiques. My mother has a wonderful eye for design, art and architecture, and she also influenced me growing up. 

CB: Has Brush Factory made modifications to its initial vision?

HS: Yes! I’m not afraid to admit that we lacked a certain focus and vision when we first started working on projects at the old Brush Factory in Brighton. Rosie [Kovacs, co-owner] and I came from different design disciplines — fashion versus product — and we were eager to make and work rather than flesh out a strategic vision for our company. We’ve been stubbornly fighting our way through all of the challenges that come with starting and keeping a small business going. Today, six years since we started, I’m happy to say that we have a united vision for Brush Factory and are thrilled to be participating in the Big Pitch competition, which will certainly help us cement our ideas even further. (Zack Hatfield)

James Marable of Original Thought Required - Photo: Jesse Fox

James Marable, founder/brand strategist, Original Thought Required

CityBeat: What makes Original Thought Required different from other contemporary streetwear shops?

James Marable: We really focus on the up-and-coming artist, specifically from the Cincinnati area. I’ve taken on countless brands that literally started here, individuals I met, random artists who didn’t even know they wanted a T-shirt line, and I helped them get it. Helping them start their own business is really our thing. We see a lot of brands and shops that are dedicated to saying just “Cincinnati,” where we’re more about helping local talent develop their product.

CB: Describe, in your own words, the message/values behind Original Thought Required.

JM: It’s literally the name: Original Thought Required. The thinking behind the shop is to come in and find what you like, whether it’s clothes, music or a great conversation. It’s not about coming in with a preconceived notion that it’s what we or someone else thinks you should want or defines you to be. It’s about coming in and being yourself.

CB: What has been your greatest accomplishment with the shop so far?

JM: Being here for five-and-a-half years is a huge milestone, especially down here in OTR. Launching different brands and being able to say we had a hand in brands like Ohio Against the World taking off and doing what they’re doing. So many brands are doing really cool things now, and we get to say we were a résumé piece when they didn’t have their own place, and they went on to do really great things. Being that springboard for them helped bring light to other creatives as well as maintain our position in the city, where everyone is able to do well.

CB: What is the ultimate goal for Original Thought Required?

JM: To impact the city and provide them with great products they can wear with pride. Our goal is to provide something that’s not overly trendy and can last five to 10 years. We want to be that. We’re not into selling you something the hottest rappers are wearing now but won’t be wearing next year. We want our products to speak to customers on a personal level. We want to grow in size and eventually have a bigger shop, potentially opening multiple locations. (Sarah Urmston)

Richard Hunt, owner, Roebling Point Books & Coffee

CityBeat: Can you tell me about the mission of your business?

RH: To my last breath, I believe the human condition is improved by acknowledging that everyone has a heart with the same hopes, and that by reading and reasoning and reflecting, we will lift one another up. Our golden future lies not at the end of a yellow-brick road; instead, it’s a path paved by books, described by dreamers and those who dare to protect and light the way for us all. And we’ll do our share by putting books in people’s hands every time we get the chance.

CB: Why did you apply for ArtWorks’ Big Pitch? 

RH: My goal with the Big Pitch is to get expert advice on how to weave together many of our started-but-not-completed endeavors so that the shop can be a safe place for individuals, a resource for the neighborhood and a beacon for visitors and readers. The process of reviewing the business plan, organizing our thoughts and timelines, being more intentional to staff and customers, double-checking whether what we initially hoped to be is in fact what we’ve become — all that is an invaluable part of Big Pitch prep.

CB: What would you do with the $15,000 if you won it?

RH: 1. Raises for the staff.  2. A website that would allow us to spotlight books that few others have (i.e. the rare and antiquarian titles that don’t succeed or showcase as well in a retail environment as they do online). 3. Bring in more fantastic books that are universally hard to find. 4. Commence a literacy program, in conjunction with the schools, so we could supplement the reading skills the kids are being taught.

CB: How do you try to engage with the literary community? 

RH: We talk with everyone who comes in, which is absolutely key to understand what each individual likes best in terms of subjects, authors, genres, etc. We host events, in terms of readings, and we just started live music a couple times a month on Saturdays. Music and books are just as complementary as coffee and books.

CB: Where do you get your coffee? 

RH: We source two local independent, family-owned roasters: Seven Hills Coffee and Coffee Break Roasting Co. There are fantastic folks working at each one of these places, and we’re grateful for their support, advice, commitment to independent business and great-quality coffee beans.

CB: What is the biggest challenge of running your business? 

RH: The big three: time, money, always feeling like there are 22 different things still to do. The fourth one is double-checking to make sure that whatever it is I’m doing at the moment is the most important task of the 22 that still have to be done. The day-to-day, must-get-done checklist is the foundation for aspirational challenges — keeping excellent books on the shelves, helping to promote literacy in the community and doing our part to make life here more meaningful. (ZH)

Jason Snell of We Have Become Vikings - Photo: Jesse Fox

Jason Snell, founder, We Have Become Vikings

CityBeat: Why did you first start We Have Become Vikings?

Jason Snell: I started WHBV as a means to do freelance and personal work after-hours. I started it in 2007, and eventually I had so much freelance I made the jump to running it full-time out of my dining room. It was scary at first, but I started to gain confidence once I started doing work for larger brands, especially out of town.

CB: Describe your creative process. 

JS: Getting to know the client, discovering the problem, find the story, get inspired through research and create and collaborate to solve and bring forth the project to life. There are always challenges along the way, but if I try and stay to this as a map, I can find success.

CB: How do you gather your overall inspiration for each project?

JS: Lately it’s been history and uncovering amazing stories from Cincinnati’s past — it really can be from anywhere, especially music and art.

CB: What inspires you, personally?

JS: Rock & Roll, street art, sports and my local chefs, to name a few.

CB: Although every client is unique, is there a specific theme you like to keep consistent throughout each project?

JS: For me personally, it’s about an attitude. Clients usually come to me because they are interested in an attitude that combines work-hard-play-hard aesthetics with a Rock & Roll spirit. That can take many forms and shapes, from Virgin America’s yearly report/refresh, creating and developing a mural that tells our neighborhood’s rich history or writing and designing a video game — it’s all about attitude.

CB: What is it like as a creative business owner in Cincinnati?

JS: Fantastic. Living, playing and working in Cincinnati wasn’t always this great, and I’ve seen it pretty bad. But now, it’s the greatest time to live, play and work in Cincinnati in 100 years. I have nothing but love and passion for our city.

CB: What difference do you hope to make through your work?

JS: A difference we hope to make through our work is bringing smiles through collaborating with others and creating interactive experiences for others to have fun with. We worked on [People’s Liberty’s] Good Eggs, which did exactly that — gumball machines filled with “Good Eggs” that, once a user puts in a quarter, they are prompted with a good deed to do in their neighborhood, like “Pick up a piece of trash” or “Tell someone you love them.” All Good Eggs have a badge that shows the user is now a part of the movement.

CB: What legacy do you want to leave with WHBV?

JS: I guess the legacy I would like to leave with WHBV has always been a scrappy, hungry creative shop that loves rooting for the underdog, both working hard and playing hard. (SU)

Jess Sheldon of Cityscape Tiles - Photo: Jesse Fox

Jess Sheldon, owner, Cityscape Tiles (formerly known as Hazel Brown Photography)

CityBeat: What would you say is the most challenging aspect of being a freelance photographer in Cincinnati?

Jess Sheldon: Probably when people think that, as a photographer, you do everything. I think there are niches — there’s a difference between someone who does portrait photography versus someone who does commercial work or fine art. I know that’s something I struggle with. I really like to do a lot of my fine arts stuff, but where people are willing to spend the money is more on portraiture or wedding photography. So I find it kind of difficult to be well-versed in all of these areas. It’s hard to be an expert in just one, because everyone is a photographer now, and there’s so many other alternate forms of photographs that produce work. I’ve been finding out how to find your own niche in what you’re interested in and still preserving your own artistic eye.

CB: What do you think you would do with $15,000 for your business?

JS: With $15,000, I really want to work through some of the logistics of my business. I primarily make photo tiles of Cincinnati. I make them all in my studio in Over-the-Rhine, and I want to ramp up production and make more, branching out to other cities. I also would like to work with bigger companies; I’m working with the Samuel Adams brewery this year, and I would really like to work with other businesses in places where people have interest in preserving history. For instance, the Sam Adams brewery in Cincinnati was the old Schoenling brewery, and so there’s a lot of history within that brewery in Cincinnati, and being able to tap into that and then put it on tiles creates something tangible. It has a functional purpose, but also something people can have for years. It’s not going to get lost in the hard drive somewhere.

CB: How does photography play an important role in the community?

JS: For me, it offers a new perspective on the ordinary and gives people something to appreciate in a way they might not ordinarily look at something. The majority of my work is in Over-the-Rhine, where I used to lifeguard when I was in high school. Looking at the changes that have happened over the last 15 years is pretty fascinating to see. A lot of people didn’t know what some of these buildings looked like or that some even existed, or what got torn down — so I think that being able to kind of capture some of those things to understand the history about a place, it’s really interesting. Another example would be the project that Keep Cincinnati Beautiful does: the doors. I did a montage of doors in OTR with the painted facades. Out of the 20 I put on the poster, there are maybe six left now. Remembering the phases you’ve gone through and being able to capture that in a beautiful way, I think people like to think about that.

CB: Do you have a particular favorite spot to shoot in Cincinnati?

JS: I would say primarily Over-the-Rhine or downtown. I really like to just walk around, wander and see what catches my eye while talking to people. I really let things happen, if that makes sense — trying to be at the right place at the right time. (ZH)

Jenifer Sult, founder, Cut and Sewn

CityBeat: Cut and Sewn is a sample room — could you explain exactly what that is?

Jenifer Sult: What we do is we provide design, pattern-making and sewing services to design entrepreneurs. And it doesn’t have to be clothes or fashion, it can be anything made out of soft goods. We help get their design finalized, make the pattern, create a sample, and then they take that sample to possible investors or buyers. And then when they’re ready to go into production, we also do small-batch manufacturing. And the cool thing about having this sample room is that, traditionally, sample rooms have always been in the fashion headquarters — you know, New York and L.A. — and they have a pretty high barrier to entry because they’re fairly expensive and if you’re not already in the fashion industry, you don’t really know what you’re looking for, and it can be very intimidating.

CB: What has your career path looked liked?

JS: I’m originally from Michigan, and I moved to the Cincinnati area about 20 years ago. And I’ve literally just been sewing my entire life. I started when I was a little kid and I just loved it, and I just knew that was always what I wanted to do for a living. So as a teenager and young adult, I would just make things. I would make clothing and hats and accessories and just take them around to boutiques and sell them, sometimes on consignment. I did that for years and years while I worked part-time jobs for real money, and I just did that for fun, and then I just started becoming more and more profitable and it just sort of became a business.

CB: So how did Cut and Sewn come about?

JS: I actually went back to school at DAAP as a full-fledged adult with three kids and a husband and a house and cars and all that stuff. I went for fashion design, and I just loved it. It was fantastic. I found my stride, and as soon as I graduated I just started taking every sewing job I could get, doing alterations for people and things like that. And I’d alter their clothing to make it fit and make it look better, and people liked what I did with their clothing so much that they started asking me to make new garments from scratch for them — design and create garments for people. And so that work just kept expanding and expanding and expanding until I’ve gotten to the point where I’m at now. I just relocated to a space in Northside that’s right on Hamilton Avenue, so we have our studio there now. We really just got it set up literally last week! We don’t have signs on the windows or anything like that yet, but we’re in here working away. (CM)

Allison Hines of Butcher Betties - Photo: Jesse Fox

Allison Hines, founder, Butcher Betties

CityBeat: How did you end up in butchery?

Allison Hines: Well, I had been a cook in the Navy and a corporate chef after that, and when that was over, my fiancé and I sat down and made a list [to figure out what I wanted to do] and he said, “Well, you want to learn how to butcher and you were always a great Bettie,” and I said, “Surely we cannot create a pin-up-inspired butcher shop,” and he said, “I think we just did.”

And [I got my start in] butchery — this is a great story — because I did a dinner for the culinary school…and got all the local farmers to donate the food. And so I created a menu on what they had donated and one of the farmers called and said, “Hey, Allison, I don’t have as much chicken as I thought,” and so I put the call back out to the farmers and one of them — who works for me today — calls me. Trish Houston from Napoleon Ridge Farm, she calls me and says, “Hey Allie, I’ve got those chickens for you, but they’re live.” Well, I had no clue, I did not know what I was going to do, so I called several different people and finally ended up at my father-in-law’s house in Anderson Township in the backyard with 6 live chickens. And I said, “Dad, you show the first one, and I’ll do the rest.” So he did, and it’s the most spiritual experience I’ve ever had, truly taking a life for food and truly taking something from the farm to the table, telling its story, honoring its sacrifice. We nourish these animals and then in turn they nourish us, and that’s why I do what I do today.

CB: So do you guys get live animals in the shop?

AH: Unfortunately, I can’t do that, I’d have to actually own a processing facility. Now what I do do is I source directly from farmers and I develop those connections and relationships and I encourage my customers — plenty of my customers have gone out to my farmers and visited their farms. You know, I want to be able to say I can introduce you to my farmer who raises my chickens, my farmers who raises my hogs, and that’s the important thing for me — to make sure that I have that connection.

CB: About how long does it take to learn all of these skills?

AH: Well, there’s no school to go to. But there’s a group out there called Grrls Meat Camp. They’re the original strong and feminine group of women farmers and food writers and butchers all over the world. And so shortly after my experience with the chicken, I went to a butchery camp on the farm with Grrls Meat Camp, they gave me a scholarship and they gave me my first shot. And so I want to do that here…to be honest, when I said I was gonna go train at Avril-Bleh’s, I told them I wanted an 18-month apprenticeship, because the only way I could learn was an old-world apprenticeship. And I only got 7 when the opportunity to own my own shop came along — all I had to do was take over payments, everything was already here. And those opportunities don’t come along very often, and as an entrepreneur, sometimes you have to have more courage than sense — that’s what my mother always told me. And so I did — the first day I ever cleaned a bandsaw was the day I owned it. And I’m still learning! It’s been two years and I’m still learning, I’m constantly learning. You have to. I’m learning new cuts, new ways to teach people, new ways to feed and raise animals (even though I don’t raise them myself).  It’s a business where you can’t ever stop learning. (CM)

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