Northside's Lisa Kagen masters practical creativity

By Anne Mitchell for CityBeat

Lisa Kagen is an artist, a chef, a parent and an entrepreneur — and all of those identities factor heavily into the operation of her two Northside businesses: Melt Eclectic Deli and Picnic and Pantry, a market that serves healthy, sustainable groceries and prepared foods.

Kagen's impact on Northside has extended beyond the people she feeds to the people she's helped advise and mentor in her position as a board member for the Northside Business Association. Her businesses are succeeding because, in her words, they're doing everything the right way: composting, recycling and using quality ingredients; but also because they're actually operating as well-managed businesses.

"Don't listen to your ego, listen to your business," she explains. "Take everything into consideration but don't get caught in your vision unless it works for the business. Ideas get you into trouble without a foundation."

That's a good insight into what makes Kagen tick. People might look at the "eclectic" part of her work and think that it's free-form hippie heaven. Far from it.

"When employees come to me with an idea, I ask them, ‘What's the execution plan?' Every new idea is a new plan inside a business plan, so you've got to do the numbers."

Her perspective is practical, especially given that she graduated with a master's in Fine Arts. While Kagen cautions that it's hard to be practical when you're a creative person, her years of owning a business have earned her "… another degree; an MBA."

"We're making great, beautiful things, but it's science as much as art. As an artist, I've found a way to improve where I am through entrepreneurship."

Kagen was a vegetarian in her teens and early twenties. She grew up in a kosher home and taught herself about food. Pregnancy and motherhood deepened her mindful approach to healthy eating, and though she's an omnivore now, her diet remains focused on plants and products that are pesticide-free and ethically produced. She mentions Carriage House Farms in North Bend as an example of a local source, saying she wishes she could use everything that they offer.

She recognizes the role of her collaborators in Picnic and Pantry in influencing her work: John Wales, Drew Chestnut and Marie Songer. They are all self-taught, and have been working and growing together for many years. She compares them to pioneers — people who "were meant to work and create together every day."

"I love the connection that our staff has with each other, from the dishes to the register to the kitchen. Everyone is valued and respected."

Kagen also knows that she owes a lot to the strong women in her life, who have helped her "… see what I need to see about balancing motherhood with work, managing staff, customer service and achieving spiritual goals. I have excellent managers at both stores, and my family and friends have been supportive, even when they offer advice I do not want to hear."

She singles out Frances Kroner, owner of pop-up restaurant Feast and chef at Picnic and Pantry.

"I started working with Frannie at a time in my life where I felt like my artistic side had pretty much been buried alive by crunching numbers, managing employees and watching our budget like the stock market. She helped remind me that I am still an artist. Although we are different in many ways, her openness, sense of wonder and willingness to explore the unusual reminds me of myself back in art school, and I am really glad she helped bring that part of me back."

Another key inspiration in Kagen's career was Patrick McCafferty, owner of the late, lamented Slim's. Working with McCafferty's hydroponic farming — which he's now doing successfully in Cleveland — was a great learning experience for both of them.

Kagen's customers are largely Northside families, with a weekday lunch crowd from the hospitals and universities. Weekends, there are city-wide guests and even out-of-towners in the mix. Kagen has had some pushback from people who think Melt is "not vegetarian enough" or too pricey. Both accusations hurt her.

"We aren't strictly vegetarian. We want to feed anyone who wants food free from food colorings, trans fats, hormones, nitrites and high fructose corn syrup, with as many organic or locally grown foods as possible. I wish, too, that I could raise awareness of how much it actually costs to get that food onto plates. But it's worth it."

MELT (4165 Hamilton Ave., Northside, 513-681-6358, ) and PICNIC AND PANTRY (4163 Hamilton Ave., 513-681-8600, ) sandwich the Northside Tavern on Hamilton Avenue in Northside.

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