Meet the Man Behind the East End Revival

How “Chicken” Nick Motz grew from a river-loving local boy to the man with a plan to revive an entire neighborhood.

I’ll be honest right up front: I’ve known Nick Motz for more than 20 years, and I never thought I’d be writing his story.

When we first met, many of our mutual friends called him “Chicken Nick,” a moniker he still hears occasionally and still acknowledges with his signature chuckle and squinty smile. The nickname goes all the way back to grade school, when he brought his dad to class at St. Ursula Villa on show-and-tell day. Matthew Motz Sr. showed up in big rubber boots and a white T-shirt, carrying a crate of chickens. For the Motzes, toting around chickens came naturally. Showing them off to a classroom of cackling kids? Not so much.

“But he made a big impression on all the kids,” says Nick. Clearly. The nickname stuck.

Illustration by Rafa Alvarez

Leaving a positive impression with people and on places remains important to Nick Motz. It’s a big part of his development efforts in the East End, a neighborhood where the 48-year-old, longtime Mt. Washington resident has gradually become a property owner, real estate agent, and builder. It started in 2008, when Motz converted a small 1935 Kroger store into a solar-powered office space for his wife’s graphic design business. He later kick-started the uber-popular Eli’s BBQ in 2012, followed by The Hi-Mark roadhouse in 2017, and is remodeling the defunct Todi Toys and an adjacent warehouse into a restaurant and bar with an upstairs apartment.

Eli’s has been drawing hungry crowds to the short stretch of Riverside Drive between Schmidt Fields and Delta Avenue for years. Along with The Hi-Mark, they’re the initial big steps of Motz’s long-range plan to add more restaurants/bars to the neighborhood and create an official entertainment strip. He’s also among the community activists and city staff who drafted the pending 2017 East End Garden District Plan—a proposed 48-acre plot pocked with blue-and-orange Motz Real Estate signs—which Motz hopes will beautify and eventually attract new housing and better parking to the sparsely populated, economically challenged East End.

Twenty years ago, few would have imagined Chicken Nick would become such a vital community force. Not that he was lacking any of the necessary qualities—tall and smart, with an outgoing, frat-boy enthusiasm. An affable Cincinnati lifer from a tight-knit Catholic family (the oldest of four boys) who’s harbored a lifelong love for the Ohio River. He was always busy but didn’t talk much about work, preferring to be out on the water with a Maker’s-and-Coke or koozie’d beer. He seemed content to be living for fun. Now he’s helping reshape a neighborhood.

Nick Motz’s story begins in the late 1890s, when twentysomething Kentucky truck farmer Edward Motz and his German wife, Otilia, settled into a small sharecropper’s house on Ohio land once farmed by the pioneer Clough family. Their second child (of nine), Herman, founded Motz Poultry in December 1942, the same week his wife Loretta gave birth to their son Matthew.

Matthew took to the family business and married Virginia “Ginny” Mayer in 1967 in White Oak’s St. James Church. They had Nicholas in June 1969, followed by Lou in 1971, Bart in 1972, and Matt Jr. in 1975. When Nick entered St. Xavier High School, the family finally expanded its house, which was just down the road from where Edward and Otilia lived. Until then, the Motzes had only one bathroom, a Jack-and-Jill on the second floor, where the boys shared a small room with two bunk beds—Matt Jr. slept above Nick—and a dresser with one drawer for each of them. They ate fresh Amish chicken from Motz Poultry almost every day.

“I’ve always thought the East End had potential, but for my entire life, it just kept sitting there.”

“It was great looking back on it now,” says Matt Jr. “Other than our brotherly fights, we had a very close upbringing. We didn’t watch a lot of TV. We were always out playing in the creek bed and the woods.”

The boys were like a pack. They fished and swam in Clough Creek, which bisected the family’s eight acres along Clough Pike, and played ice hockey in the winter. They climbed trees and hiked the surrounding woods, sledded the hills, shot guns, and set off fireworks. Nick will fondly regale you with stories of bounding around the Turpin Hills on his Honda CT70 minibike. “It was real country back then,” he says. “Just in my lifetime, we’ve seen Anderson built up. Turpin Hills was in its infant stage when I was born.”

Ginny Motz, a former teacher and saint of a woman for wrangling those four sons, homeschooled Nick for kindergarten before sending him to St. Ursula Villa through eighth grade. By that point, he’d been working at Motz Poultry for six years after school and on weekends. His brothers did the same. It was all part of their parents’ plan to instill the value of honest, hard work and saving for the future.

“Dad’s philosophy was, if he was going to start us working young and paying us, we needed a good Catholic education,” says Nick. “When you graduated from second grade, it was like, Welcome to the family business. We worked harder than some of the men on staff.”

When the boys earned that first paycheck, their father held the same ritual for all four them. “He said, ‘We’re going right down to Fifth Third to meet the manager,’ ” Nick remembers. “Dad made us put half of our checks into savings. But as a kid, I put all of it in. What was I going to buy with it, candy and stuff?”

The seed of Nick’s future in business had been planted. He saved enough to buy a car when he turned 16, a 1984 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme decked out in rally style with a T-top roof. “I could have paid cash, but Dad said to hold back all but $1,000 to establish credit. So that’s what I did.”

While at St. Xavier High School, Nick worked weekday afternoons and weekends at the family hatchery. He drove a delivery truck full of chicks on Saturday mornings, starting at 4 a.m., which meant no Friday night football games. “I had no personal urge to be in sports,” says Motz. “I preferred hard work over play. There were times when I wished I were on the golf course with my buddies. But in hindsight I could see where my parents were going with it.”

Nick Motz photographed in The Hi-Mark, January 30.

Photograph by Chris Von Holle

He graduated from St. X in 1987 with a 3.8 GPA and stayed home to attend the University of Cincinnati. He studied industrial design, worked a few co-op jobs around town, and graduated in 1993, all the while working for Motz Poultry. It was during the first of two co-ops at Totes Isotoner Corp. in West Chester Township that he met his future wife, fellow tall person and river rat Mary Beth Wilker, a west side native and graphic designer. Another large-brood Cincinnati Catholic, she was three years older and in a position of authority over Nick, and remembers him being quiet, perhaps a little nervous, but cordial and hard working. They became acquaintances and part of the same friend group.

“I knew all his girlfriends, and he knew all my boyfriends,” says Mary Beth. Both saw each other fall in and out of love. When Nick got engaged, Mary Beth even attended a dance class the couple took in preparation for a wedding reception that never happened. The two would socialize at parties, on Ohio River boat trips, and during big gatherings at the Wilker family “camp” at Jackson Landing near Warsaw, Kentucky. But they were “just friends,” says Mary Beth. Eventually, cupid came calling, and in September 2000, nearly two years after they started dating, the couple got hitched. In one of several departures from tradition, there was no ring for Mary Beth.

“She told me, ‘Don’t waste money on a ring. I’m not a jewelry person,’” says Nick. But Mary Beth was a boat person, an avid camper, and a believer that the Ohio River carries with it the same lifeblood it had when Cincinnati was founded in 1788. So instead of a ring, Nick bought her a ski boat and named it the Merry Me. Their wedding reception was held at the Wilkers’ camp, with local bluesman H-Bomb Ferguson donning his colorful wigs and regaling the 300 in attendance. The happy couple even stole away from the reception for an impromptu skiing spin out on the water in the new boat, before returning—in their bathing suits—to party through the night.

To tell the story of how Nick and Mary Beth became ensconced in the East End, I have to back up a little. Several seminal events occurred in Motz’s life, including his mother’s struggle with breast cancer, which would ultimately take her life in 2003 at age 60. Nick was 18 when their mother first got sick. Matt Jr., the youngest, was only 10, and remembers his big brother stepping up. “He was always helping my mother around the house, sweeping floors and stuff, doing things you’d think a mother would do, but she wasn’t able to,” he says. “I think it was a very righteous thing he did.”

The Motz boys had a close relationship with their father, though his hard-working nature often kept him away from home. Matt Sr. wanted Nick to take over Motz Poultry after college, but his restless son had other plans, and some friction resulted.

Nick had met Tim Carter when he framed the Motzes’ barn. The well-known master builder, whose long-standing column, “Ask the Builder,” was published every Saturday in The Cincinnati Enquirer, later mentored Motz as he pursued his dream of becoming a landlord. Matt Sr. eventually came on board with this dream, but it took time and patience on both men’s part.

“My original post-college goal was to buy four buildings in four years and get them up and running,” says Nick. Using rental income from each property, he accomplished his goal, often with the help of his brothers. “At some point, I asked myself, Is this something I want to take to another level? From there, it just morphed into what I became.”

Nick sold banner ads for Carter’s website and continued to pitch in at Motz Poultry right up until his father sold the business in 2002 (Matt Sr. passed away in 2005), but mostly he was buying, rehabbing, and renting property, using his own money and tools. In 2000, months before the big wedding, fate intervened.

“I was rollerblading down at Lunken [Airport], and I took a fall and broke my wrist,” says Nick. “I was supposed to be rehabbing Mom and Dad’s kitchen that next month, but I was just laying around depressed. That’s when Mary Beth said, ‘Why not get a real estate license?’ It made sense.”

Motz was always busy but didn’t talk much about work, preferring to be out on the water with a koozie’d beer. He seemed content to be living for fun. Now he’s helping reshape a neighborhood.

Nick became a licensed broker with Michael P. Kelly Realty in Hyde Park, learning the ropes from Mike and Elva Kelly. Under their tutelage, Nick and Mary Beth purchased a small house at the busy corner of Edwards and Edmondson roads in Norwood in 2001 and remodeled it into office space for her company, Wilker Design. The traffic helped Mary Beth’s business become what Nick called “a cash cow,” but in 2002 the couple found themselves embroiled in a high-profile legal battle that went all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court. The city of Norwood claimed that the 11 acres of land cut off from the rest of the city by I-71 were “deteriorating” to the degree that, by Ohio’s imminent domain law, the land could be claimed by the city. The plan was to raze more than 70 houses and a few small businesses, one of which was Wilker Design. Nick and a core of his neighbors objected.

Finally, after the case dragged on for four years, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled in favor of the residents who stuck to their guns. But by 2006, Wilker Design was one of just a few structures still standing, so Nick and Mary Beth cut their losses and agreed to a settlement from Norwood, just as many of their neighbors had.

With a $500,000 settlement to lean on, Mary Beth leased office space downtown while Nick broadened his search for a standalone building for Wilker Design. “It took us three years to find this,” he said sipping coffee in the East End office they’ve owned since 2007. The erstwhile Kroger had cycled through a number of enterprises—butcher shop, laundromat, roadhouse for the Iron Horseman motorcycle club, a cabinet maker’s shop—before Motz bought it. “I thought the building was awesome, and Mary Beth did, too,” he says. “It was this big square box that we could make anything out of. The bigger question was, will the neighborhood ever come around? I’ve always thought the East End had potential, but for my entire life, it just kept sitting there. Then we saw all the new buildings at the west end of Riverside Drive, and I thought, Why not start at the other end and meet in the middle somewhere?

“That was just my pie-in-the-sky idea. How far we go, I don’t know.”

They opened the new Wilker Design in 2008, just as the national real estate market tanked. The resulting recession hurt the small company, but the couple’s rental property income kept them afloat. When Mary Beth told Nick she wanted a “new ring, and that meant a new boat” on their 10th wedding anniversary in 2010, he bought her a vintage Lyman lake boat she calls her Diamond Lyman. Nick also bought an empty building a few doors east of Wilker Design. Its last incarnation was June Bug’s Riverside Bar-B-Que in the early 2000s. Though he couldn’t believe the old building was still standing, Nick envisioned a grocery/carryout. But with less than 200 people living on the surrounding streets, he didn’t see enough support for a retail store. Then fate stepped in.

A mutual friend introduced Motz to Elias “Eli” Leisring on Fountain Square one sweltering summer day in 2011. Leisring made and sold his homemade barbecue in pop-up fashion, and Nick was impressed by the long line of hungry customers stacking up in front of Eli’s portable grill. Leisring, who had ambitions to own a brick-and-mortar restaurant, was equally impressed with Motz. “So here’s a guy who’s good and tan, and he’s a Realtor, so he must be doing good,” recalls Leisring. “It was 2011, and anybody making money in real estate at that time must be a good businessperson. Plus, he was a nice guy who had good energy.”

By that fall, Leisring accepted Motz’s offer to clean up and lease him the old June Bug’s building for a new barbecue joint. “We threw a handshake on it and said, ‘Let’s get rockin’,’” says Leisring. “It was one of those special moments that are impossible to create—like a shooting star.” Motz, Leisring, and Drew Simmons (Leisring’s business partner) set course on an adventure that has garnered packed East End picnic tables and widespread culinary acclaim, and eventually led the team to partner on The Hi-Mark with the owners of Pho Lang Thang and Quan Hapa restaurants. Eli’s success caught other East End developers’ attention as well, creating a domino effect in the area. “Pearl’s, Streetside, and Blank Slate—I don’t think a lot of those people would have looked this way if Eli’s didn’t happen,” says Motz.

“The folkiness of the neighborhood is charming to me,” says Leisring. “And I always thought that most cultish places were to be found off the beaten path, [but] in actuality we’re just three to four miles from everything.”

The Hi-Mark

Photograph by Chris Von Holle

General proximity not withstanding, the East End is still very much a neighborhood in transition. There’s some hesitancy and opposition about the proposed garden district among some of the seasoned, gentrification-wary residents, but Motz tries to be a friendly ambassador.

“Some of the people are skeptical,” Matt Jr. acknowledges. “They’re not wanting new development coming in and are worried they’ll lose their houses. But I feel a lot of people now —especially since Nick has been going to their doorsteps, talking with them and easing their minds—have warmed up to it.”

Leisring has sensed the same pushback from some East Enders but believes Motz “is not a bad-guy gentrifier.” It’s certainly not a persona Motz has ever embodied before, which is why he’s comfortable standing on all those front porches and opening himself up. Motz senses a special energy in his little slice of the East End, a feeling he’s starting to see some momentum.

One sunny December afternoon, he and I strolled around his adopted neighborhood, heading out from Wilker Design’s corner location and turning south on Setchell Street, a dead-end drive off Riverside that stretches back toward the river. He points out which alleys would be paved and where there would be community gardens, open space for summer events, and walking paths under the proposed development plan. A block down from Eli’s, he spots a man following two dogs out of his house. “What’s up today, Freddy? Lettin’ the beasts out?” Nick chuckles. The man nods and smiles.

Motz has more than real estate holdings invested in the area. He hopes that the remaining neighborhood skeptics will come around and the city will recognize the East End as an official business district (qualifying it for stipend and grant money), fueling more businesses like Eli’s and The Hi-Mark and new housing. He wants his investment—not just financial, but personal and emotional—to be worth it.

Then maybe Chicken Nick and Mary Beth can finally take a little break, push the Diamond Lyman out into the Ohio, koozie’d beer in hand, and admire a revitalized East End from just off shore.

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