At first glance, Sleepy Bee Cafe, Brazee Street Studios, and Blue Manatee Bookstore don’t have much in common. But look closer, and you’ll notice similarities: a strong sense of community courses through each, and they all have an atmosphere that appeals to adults and kids alike. Yet these things aren't the common denominator—proprietor Sandy Gross is.
An artist and early childhood educator by trade, Gross didn't set out to operate the three seemingly disparate Oakley businesses, but in their own ways, each allows her to do something she loves: share knowledge. She co-owns the cafe and children's bookstore with her husband, Dr. John Hutton (a pediatrician at Cincinnati Children's Hospital) and has a partner in longtime collaborator Leah Busch at Brazee Street.
Cincinnati Refined recently caught up with the Cincy native to talk business, community, and why the Queen City is better than New York.
Cincinnati Refined: All of your businesses are very community- and family-oriented. Why is that important to you?
Sandy Gross: I really don’t know how to do it another way. Blue Manatee recently moved to a new location next to Sleepy Bee in Oakley after 24 years in the same location. To embrace this change, we assembled a team of artists and 200 local children and created a glass sculpture based on Leo Lionni’s book Swimmy. The moral of Swimmy is that a group of individuals working together are much stronger than any of them alone. These days, we are more connected via the Internet and more disconnected culturally. It is more important than ever to create experiences and spaces in real time, face-to-face, where community is exalted, be it at Sunday brunch, story time, or an art opening.
CR: What, in particular, do you love about Cincinnati’s community?
SG: It has a richness and depth while being accessible. We joke it is like New York without the problems.
CR: Is there a connecting philosophy behind the three businesses?
SG: All are about authenticity and arête—the Greek term meaning excellence in all things. For us, that means eating something created by Sleepy Bee chef Frances Kroner, like locally sourced buckwheat pancake with Ohio maple syrup. It means shopping at a children’s bookstore curated by Dr. John Hutton, a pediatrician who is one of the nation’s leading experts on literacy and the brain. And it means enjoying 30 artist studios in a gallery whose mission is to show other local artists, ages 3 to 100.
CR: Brazee and Blue Manatee make sense given your and John’s backgrounds. But why a restaurant?
SG: John and I love and consciously seek out restaurants that have a seasonal, farm-to-table philosophy. We love knowing the story behind our food. We also love breakfast and found it baffling that there was not a single breakfast place that had maple syrup or a local egg. We live in Ohio!
One of our favorite things before Sunday brunch is to sit around drinking a pot of coffee thinking about the world, our projects, dreams, and hopes. Many Sunday musings would be about this mythical restaurant that would have omelettes made with local eggs and pancakes doused with local syrup. We agreed that by the time we are 50 if it did not exist, we would open it.
CR: What inspires you?
SG: Lots of things inspire me. Different things at different times. The constant is the relationship of one thing to another, especially in nature. I have a porch outside my studio and most mornings before everyone else gets up, I go there and listen, sketch, and drink my coffee. Right now patterns and rhythms of bees and plants is my informant. Their world and the connection to our world inspires everything I do.
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