Elias Leisring is best known for his barbecue joint, but he’s also supporting food entrepreneurs all over the Ohio Valley region.
“Chill” might work for some people. But not for Elias Leisring. He runs his businesses ventures with the same heat-seeking intensity he applies to musicianship, fatherhood, food, liquor, architecture, history, and a seemingly endless list of other interests.
That’s why it’s probably confusing for some people to hear the popular restaurateur’s No. 1 piece of business advice, dispensed confidently and in all seriousness: Aim for C-minus.
It’s hard to understand what he means if you’ve never tried Eli’s BBQ, saddled up to the Hi-Mark Bar, or browsed at Herzog Music—distinctive spots that all share a vibe as undeniable as it is unnameable. It’s a twilight game of horseshoes while a honky-tonk record spins just within earshot. It’s hoisting your kid onto shoulders for a better view of the rock show. It’s a five-dollar sandwich as satisfying as a five-course meal. It’s a heady neon buzz as the River Queen glides effortlessly by, emerging, perhaps, from another time.
Leisring’s establishments are made from humble, Midwestern stuff. Don’t try so hard, their walls seem to whisper. Forget about global domination. Quit the paper chase. Camaraderie over competition.
So far, the philosophy is well received. In his mission to capture the very essence of what makes Cincinnatians proudest, Leisring has become much more than a pitmaster; he’s a master of reinvention who’s redefining his hometown, one venture at a time.
From the Suit to the Spit
Leisring quit his banking job and joined the burgeoning local food scene in the late 2000s, at a time when neighborhoods across Greater Cincinnati were feeling the first stirrings of renaissance but were still regarded by many as risky places to do business. He planted his laidback-to-the-extreme, cash-only barbecue operation smack-dab in the middle of an East End neighborhood still very much on the come-up, and was, to even his own surprise, greeted by instant supporters, rabid fans, and offers to collaborate.
Fast forward to now: Eli’s BBQ has become a household name, expanding to include eight brick-and-mortar locations, including a multistate partnership with Kroger. Meanwhile, Leisring’s ventures in the local entrepreneurial space include everything from a Vietnamese-infused roadside pub to a downtown record shop.
But while you can take the banker out of the office, Leisring is still a businessman at heart. Unique vibe, he’s quick to point out, is really just another term for integrated distribution. Instead of putting a message out into cyberspace and demanding a response like so many companies in the digital age, Leisring aims to create much longer-lasting connections by giving people face-to-face authenticity to absorb however they choose. For example, the roughly 100 folks who enjoy his food at Herzog Records every Saturday are doing so in periphery to the main attraction: a free, family-friendly rock ’n’ roll puppet show, sponsored by Eli’s BBQ. It’s Marketing 101.
Creating the Competition
There are many reasons Leisring doesn’t mind dispensing these tidbits of business acumen, but at the bassline, says the lifelong musician who has busking on his bucket list, is love of community. He envisions a hometown scene dominated by fun and inclusion, where there are plenty of resources to go around and supply rises in lock step with demand.
Leisring acknowledges that his casual format makes it easy to espouse a more-the-merrier philosophy—after all, Eli’s isn’t competing with haute cuisine—but he’s deeply committed to mentoring young talent, even when their creations occupy the same space as his restaurants. Not only has he tried each of the nearly dozen barbecue joints that have sprung up in the wake of Eli’s, he says he loves them all. And, he adds slyly, he hasn’t lost a single dollar to any of them.
For Leisring, it’s never been about defining himself as a food entrepreneur. Rather, it’s about showing up, doing good work, and contributing something of value to his hometown. Those, he says, are his only criteria for partnering on a new venture, food-related or otherwise.
Taking the Long View
At this point, much of Leisring’s days are spent in meetings. He’s assembled a tight team of managers—many who have been on board since the beginning, free from any need for micromanagement—to guide daily operations while he strategizes, hosts out-of-town delegations, and makes one-off business decisions.
Leisring works hard and is thankful for much. He’s proud of the home that Eli’s represents for its more than 150 employees (and counting). He values his deep friendships in local food, politics, finance, and real estate. He loves that Herzog is at the forefront of concerted efforts to celebrate and further Cincinnati’s musical heritage. He’s anxious to see Cincinnati emerge from a decade of meteoric growth with a wholly unique and quintessential identity.
But his entrepreneurial heart is always restless, and he’s never been much for sitting around. Professionally speaking, he isn’t totally sure what the future holds. But considering the hairpin turns his career has taken up to this point, it’s safe to say that absolutely nothing is off the table.
Since leaping headfirst into the local restaurant scene more than a decade ago, Elias Leisring has delved into dozens of side projects, including:
The flagship store on Riverside Drive in East End now features an all-seasons pavilion, outdoor smoker, ample picnic space, horseshoe pits, and vegetable garden. Meanwhile, fans can take home signature dishes from Findlay Market and Kroger stores across the region.
Fireside Pizza, Walnut Hills
Leisring and business partner Drew Simmons served as mentors and backers in this pizza shop’s transition from pop-up to permanence. Located in a vintage firehouse on McMillan Street, Fireside Pizza offers up wood-fired pies with toppings that range from meaty-traditional to vegan-chic.
Saundra’s Kitchen, Downtown
With partners Trey Borland and Saundra Linn, Eli corralled veteran chefs from all over the Tristate for a simple mission: create fresh lunch options for nine-to-fivers in Cincinnati’s Central Business District. During the launch phase, Eli managed the kitchen and helped develop the menu; now, Saundra’s drum-tight delivery team zips a daily menu to the business crowd.
Queen City Radio/Queen City Whip, West End
When owners Chris and Louisa Reckman wanted to add food to their bar, Leisring suggested the pair forego adding a kitchen and instead utilize the spacious parking lot, now home to a permanent food truck serving up a handmade classic burgers, fries, and shakes.
Hi-Mark, East End
In 2017, Leisring teamed with the Lang Thang Group—owners of Pho Lang Thang and Quan Hapa in Over-the-Rhine—to create this roadhouse named for the Great Flood of 1937 that crested at nearly 80 feet, swallowing up eastern portions of the Ohio River Valley where the bar (and its neighbor, Eli’s BBQ) currently sits. An ultra-tight menu focuses on cocktails, local beer, and Vietnamese-inspired bar food.
Herzog Music, Downtown
In an increasingly frequent departure from the food business, Leisring partnered with musician friends for a hybrid venture in the former recording studio on Race Street where Hank Williams and other songsters once recorded. Herzog Music offers vintage records, instrument repair, and music lessons in addition to hosting performances that range from traveling national acts to free, family-friendly puppet shows.
Photo by Tine Hofmann – www.tmphotography.net