AKRON, Ohio — Ever had a Portabella burger with jackfruit-garlic sauce wrapped in lettuce from a carry-out? Or lemon-pepper fried salmon over grits for breakfast, also carry-out? French toast bread pudding for dessert? How about fried shark on Trinidadian fried bread topped with veggies and pineapple?
That’s just a sampling of food served over the past year at NoHi, a weekend, pop-up restaurant in Temple Square in North Hill, Akron’s international neighborhood.
Since last August, NoHi on Main Street has featured a revolving cast of local “culinary art entrepreneurs” who’ve taken up residence for the weekend, serving dishes from their homelands and adding a twist, making recipes their own.
Since its first week open, NoHi has been educational for the chefs, fun for the customers and revitalizing for the Temple Square business district, according to the North Akron Community Development Corp. (NACDC), which launched the pop-up.
“We're really proud of what we've been able to accomplish with NoHi,” said NACDC Executive Director Katie Beck.
At recent count, NoHi, open Friday through Sunday, has generated more than $200,000 in sales, Beck said. After costs — food, staffing and overhead — the entrepreneurial chefs average $2,800 in take-home for the weekend.
“Our goal with NoHi was to get ourselves at the table for development in the area and we’re pulling up a seat for sure,” said NACDC Director of Operations Justin Chenault. “What we are creating is pretty much a pipeline for culinary arts entrepreneurs.”
NoHi is the NACDC’s NoHi Culinary Art Entrepreneurship Program, the ultimate immersive culinary experience. Four weeks of intensive training leads up to three busy days of running a restaurant in real time.
Women and minority chefs get priority placement in the program, which provides everything from the commercial kitchen, training and support to expertise in developing a menu, promoting the restaurant and coordinating a staff.
The NoHi experience is unlike any other entrepreneurship program around, said NoHi manager Zoe Reese.
“They get an opportunity to see and feel what it's like to sell what they make, and the reactions, and they have three solid days of that,” she said. “It's not like a one-off festival in the park. It's three days. And it gets really busy. So that's the whole thing, that whole package is exciting.”
Reese, who moved to Akron from the Bay Area, worked a decade in the service industry. She was hired at NoHi soon after it launched and now runs NoHi’s busy front-of-house. She also tracks the numbers, updates the business plan, creates the menus and posts everything on social media, she said.
“It's very hard work,” she said. “It's a lot of running around. It's a lot of talking. And it's what I love to do.”
The majority of the chefs have dreamed of owning a restaurant but have never experienced running a commercial kitchen, Chenault said, so NoHi has an impact on their future plans.
“They really get the sense of value, like they didn't know that their food and their culture and their cuisine has value,” he said. “And they leave that experience knowing that and feeling that, and then really being embraced by the community.”
The chefs are looking for experience in different aspects of running a kitchen, Chenault said. Developing a menu at a three-day pop-up is its own art, because everything should be sold out by closing time on Sunday. That efficiency is a skill many chefs are interested in, he said.
“So we're learning now that NoHi can diversify its opportunities for entrepreneurs and how we can best support that,” he said. “It’s a challenge. Kitchens are not a joke, like, they are fast-paced and foot to the pedal.”
The chefs often volunteer after their weekend, so they gain perspective working with other chefs and different menus, Reese said.
“They're learning from each other. There's all of this cross-cultural exchange, this like information exchange,” she said. “It's wonderful.”
To keep the kitchen activated as frequently as possible, NoHi also houses a Revolving Test Kitchen (RTK) on Mondays and Tuesdays, offering a different kind of immersive experience.
Reese helps RTK chefs create a menu and promote it, and NoHi phones and online ordering system are provided. Chefs pay rent, but they buy their own food, use their own staff and are responsible for everything else.
“It gives them complete autonomy over their business,” Reese said.
The NACDC is currently building out a prep space in the back of the kitchen that’s separate from the cooking space, Chenault said, making it easier for RTK chefs and weekend chefs to work beside one another.
With plans in the works to open NoHi Coffee in June, the extra kitchen space is welcomed, as the restaurant is quickly becoming the community gathering place the NACDC envisions it to be.
“We work with them for so long, and they volunteer with us, that we're not just meeting them, and helping them do it one time,” Reese said. “We're making these lifelong connections with people."
One of Dion Millender’s dinner specialties is seafood lasagna rolls. For brunch, his customers line up for his lemon-pepper fried salmon over grits. Millender serves these and other specialties every Tuesday at his restaurant, Shaboys at NoHi, in the Revolving Test Kitchen.
“It’s modern upscale, like things that are comfortable with an upscale twist,” he said of his menu. “I kind of like to take names that are familiar to people, put my twist on and something nice, something new, something vibrant.”
His restaurant’s name, Shaboys, is a play on his name. Instead of saying, “It’s your boy, Dion,” he runs the words together fast: “It’s-sha-boy, Dion.”
Millender went through NoHi training and had a successful weekend last October, Chenault said. Millender then took over Tuesdays in the RTK in February, serving brunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and dinner from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.
“Everything is run as Shaboys every Tuesday, so pretty much the whole nine yards as far as running it as if when I do open. It’s kind of like giving me the practice to be there,” he said. “It’s the only thing around here, because nobody's ever done this. You can see if you like it, how good you are it and what you need to do to get better.”
His goal is to open an upscale restaurant in Akron in the next couple years, he said.
“I do a lot of traveling,” he said. “So I want to bring back everything that I get from my travels.”
Millender is working on developing a crew and NoHi has helped him do that.
“What kind of people you want in your restaurant, helping you figure that out,” he said. “That’s a game changer because you have to have good people who have the same kind of passion you have.”
Volunteering and working side-by-side with the other chefs is beneficial, Millender said.
“I see what I can do to help them, pick their brain,” he said. “Pretty much my first chance I get to be around other people who have culinary passion.”
Millender’s RTK is helping the NACDC as well, Chenault said.
“He's been our pilot,” Chenault said. “He's been able to really see what RTK needs and what funding we need in order to support those entrepreneurs.”
From professional development to branding support, Millender’s busy kitchen is uncovering in real time how the NACDC can improve the program.
“If we wouldn't have had the chance to pilot it with him I never would have figured it out,” Chenault said. “I'll tell you what, the sales he does are fantastic, and it blows me away every Tuesday.”
The experience the 32-year-old entrepreneur is getting at NoHi is invaluable, Millender said.
“I've always enjoyed my time there. I enjoy my relationships I have with everybody,” he said. “It’s just a really good place I can go and pretty much stretch my feet out culinary-wise because there's a tight market in Akron, Ohio. So I definitely appreciate what he's doing."
NoHi is next door to NoTique, an artisan boutique stocked with textiles, jewelry, home décor, soaps and lotions, and other items made locally by women and minorities.
NoTique opened in November, with merchandise made by 18 local women, just in time for the holidays.
“That week beforehand, Katie and I were working just hours and hours, getting everything into the system, getting everything labeled, getting all the photos up, all the online ordering,” Reese said. “It was a whirlwind.”
The work paid off, as the weeks leading up to Christmas were very busy, she said.
“It's a real time opportunity for entrepreneurs to come through and test out their goods,” Beck said. “Originally, we were going to do sort of a retail, coffee-tea space on this first floor. But it just makes way more sense to put those experiential opportunities for entrepreneurship on the main drag. And then these spaces are more like the community engagement, education and connection.”
The NACDC hired Shangri-La Studio, an Akron immigrant-owned interior design firm to turn the space into a boutique.
NoTique features materials reclaimed in Akron from tree branches to antique terra cotta water pipes. Architectural elements, including French doors from the NACDC’s Market House, a women’s empowerment facility a block away, were installed.
NoTique is open the same hours as NoHi and has room for merchandise by about 30 vendors, Beck said. With an interior doorway, NoHi customers can peruse NoTique while waiting for their orders.
“The thing with NoTique is that people don't know that the things they make in their crafts are something that they can make money from,” Reese said. “And they did it with the skills they have taught themselves, or they have been taught from a very young age. It's probably my favorite part, helping people get closer to their goals.”
Like NoHi, NoTique is more than a business — it’s a way to build economic equality, she said.
“What we're looking to do is find vendors that are from the North Hill area who are minority vendors, smaller creators, women in particular, and then immigrants,” Reese said. “We'd really like to become a hub where people can come sit between shopping and things like that. We want to create that walkable shopping experience in the Temple Square area.”
NoTique will work with the nearby Market House. With maker’s spaces on two floors, the Market House is a women’s empowerment center, Reese said, providing the tools and training local women need to make their crafts.
“I did all my Christmas shopping at NoTique,” she said. “I think if COVID taught us anything it's our money has so much power and you should spend it where you believe in it.”
Together, NoHi and NoTique comprise NoHi Enterprises, which Beck says is checking all the boxes for the NACDC’s overarching objectives: economic development, creative placemaking and building social cohesion.
Like so many entrepreneurial stories, the opportunity to create NoHi Enterprises materialized unexpectedly.
As the pandemic began to gain momentum last year, two storefronts became available on Main Street, a block away from the Exchange House and Market House, and were offered to the NACDC, Beck said.
Beck, who had led development of the Exchange House, a popular resource for immigrants and an Airbnb, had just taken reins of the NACDC in February.
When the storefronts were offered, her team was already brainstorming ways to keep Exchange House momentum going.
“It's sort of like, let's open a restaurant, we know chefs,” Chenault said. “As diverse as North Hill is, you can find all the cultures, and so that was kind of the spark for that.”
With all the pieces coming together, and more in the works, Beck says the NACDC is looking forward to showcasing the businesses built over the last year, which she calls “community assets.”
Envision Temple Square: A North Akron CDC Celebration, is set for June 5 from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. The event will be a way of “rebranding, relaunching and unifying” the NACDC’s efforts, Chenault said
Envision Temple Square will feature speakers, food, dancers and music, as well as the unveiling of a large prosperity totem at the corner of Cuyahoga Falls Avenue and Howard Street, west of Temple Square.
The area will be dubbed the “Heritage Courtyard,” indicating a distinct separation of the neighborhood’s redlined past from its brighter future, Chenault said.
“We would love for Temple Square to be known as an arts innovation district,” Chenault said. “This is to show how diverse our community is and how talented they are as well.”