photos by Tine Hofmann
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.
Hannah is a graduate of NKU's political science program and a freelance creative who writes extensively about development in Greater Cincinnati. She doesn't like to fly, but she loves to travel. Her favorite books are A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Love in the Time of Cholera.