In Western North Carolina, the road from farm to table often runs through a kitchen in Enka. That’s where an entrepreneur with a recipe and a dream—and a little money and a lot of energy—can turn a fanciful idea into a solid business.
Blue Ridge Food Ventures (BRFV) is a nonprofit “kitchen incubator,” a term which covers just about every facet of a food business from the original recipe to final delivery. BRFV executive director Chris Reedy says the incubator concept began in the late 1990s. He explains that it provides the commercial kitchen and packaging equipment that would represent a staggering investment for a small entrepreneur, as well as the expertise to navigate the maze of health regulations and business pitfalls the entrepreneur is likely to encounter.
“It’s like the American dream,” Reedy says. “You look at Chef Boyardee, at Hines, these guys started small. Granted they started back in the ‘30s, but they grew into these huge businesses. There’s no reason why somebody out of here couldn’t do the same thing.”
“Somebody out of here” now numbers about 70 clients (see a full list on our website), preparing their food products in the three kitchens that form the centerpiece of the BRFV facility, a rented building on the Enka campus of A-B Tech. The kitchens gleam with commercial-strength stainless steel equipment that can accomplish whatever specialized operation the client requires.
“We’ve got about a million-and-a-half to two million dollars worth of equipment here,” Reedy says. In addition to the standard kitchen equipment, BRFV has three walk-in freezers, a cooler, a dehydrator, a culturing fermentation space and a warehouse area. “A small entrepreneur would never be able to make an investment like that. It would just overwhelm them.” But at the BRFV fee of $200 a day, that small start-up entrepreneur can prepare his product, package it and take it to market.
The kitchens have been operating since 2005—well, actually, late in 2004 when, Reedy recalls, they got started in a big way.
“There was a client who did sweet potato pies. And they had an invitation by QVC to come on and sell their pies, and I think it was like 10 or 15 thousand pies that they had to make for QVC. And so they came in and did their production and made it happen.”
With 10,000 sweet potato pies under their belt, the kitchens were off and incubating!
Now, nearly 20 years later, the three BRFV kitchens serve clients, from food trucks to caterers to specialty food producers, and even cosmetics and cream products. Each of the kitchens serve a different segment of BRFV’s client base. Reedy explains the “dry” kitchen is equipped to produce such items as chips or bagels. The “wet” kitchen handles liquid-based items such as salsas or sauces. And then there’s what one might call the “goo” kitchen, which is outfitted to produce cosmetics, body creams, and lotions.
Add the packaging and labeling equipment, then add the business and regulatory assistance, and the operation shapes up as a life-line service for the aspiring food producer.
Even discounting any other challenges, the regulatory requirements of a food business could be enough to derail a start-up before it can get started. The start-up could quickly turn into a melt-down. BRFV simplifies that burden.
“When we get a new client, he sends his recipe to a food scientist at NC State in Raleigh. The scientist examines the recipe, then gives our client all the technical details, such as acidity requirement or moisture level and the process he’ll need to meet that requirement. An inspector from the North Carolina Department of Agriculture checks on the client during his first preparation session, then they return on a random basis. We have a state inspector here for random checks every week.”
From the details of technical state regulations to the nuts-and-bolts of cooking up a product and putting a label on a bottle, BRFV clients agree that its services are vital to their success.
“Without this facility I don’t think my business would survive.” Theresa Green attributes much of her success to BRFV. Her company, UliMana, produces a line of hand-rolled raw chocolate truffles in 12 flavors. She brings her team of five employees to the facility one or two days every week. One of them mixes the ingredients, using something that looks like your old-fashioned countertop kitchen mixer—on steroids. The 1.5 horsepower Hobart mixer stands about three feet high and churns its ingredients in a stainless steel 60-quart bowl. The mixture is spread out on a baker’s tray and placed in a cooling chamber until the rolling team is ready for it. The team reminds one of an old-fashioned quilting bee as the five women stand around a big table, rolling squares of chocolate between their hands until they are shaped into truffle-size balls. The truffles are then dipped into a powder coating before they are packaged for shipment.
Theresa Green calls her truffles a niche product, explaining that instead of sugar they contain agave and coconut nectar as sweeteners. They sell in health food stores from Maine to Maui, with annual sales in the $300,000 range. Her team can produce as many as 600 jars a day, but without BRFV, she says she would be unable to produce enough to fill her orders. “If we didn’t have this facility, I would not be able to do what I’ve done.”
Michael Henzel, another BRFV client, offers a similar appraisal. Michael produces a line of salsas and hot sauces under the label 5th Sun. “Without a place like this I’d have to invest a lot more money, and it may be an unwise investment.” Michael has been making his sauces and salsas at BRFV for 15 months. He moved here from Vermont, where he had used a local kitchen incubator. So, did the BRFV incubator figure in his decision to move to Asheville?
Michael quickly enumerated some of the challenges that would have made it “extremely difficult, essentially impossible” to start his business without the help of BRFV. “At least $100,000 investment in equipment, plus I’d have to rent a facility, then go through the permitting processes. It just might not have happened.”
Since BRFV opened it has nurtured no fewer than 31 businesses to the point that they were able to set up their own kitchens and packaging operations and go out on their own (see some of the best known graduates in the sidebar on page 26). He points to two brands that people might recognize: Lusty Monk mustard and Buchi Kombucha fermented tea.
Those successful “alumni” of BRFV represent one end of its experience; at the other end are hopeful new clients just walking in the door.
For those new clients, BRFV has a screening process to help them understand the challenges they’re facing. The initial questionnaire asks if the applicant has a business plan, a financial plan, if he’s using his own capital or borrowing money to get started.
“Most of the time they’re putting their life savings into this business,” Chris Reedy says. To help potential clients develop a plan, he recommends Mountain Business Works or the business center at one of the community colleges. “All the community colleges have a small business center. It’s a huge resource that I think people don’t take advantage of. And, it’s free.”
He explains why he wants to see a new client’s business plan. “You can look at their business plans and you can know if they’ve done their homework.” He looks at the plans with an experienced eye. His parents owned restaurants, and he was exposed to the peculiar requirements of the food business at an early age. Now, with an MBA, he brings a professional perspective to his interviews with clients.
Chris does not project the image of an MBA. A big and bulky man, he sports a mane of curly red hair, usually tied into a bun at the nape of his neck. His full red beard is beginning to show flecks of grey, and his thick mustache winds itself into elaborate curls, the full image suggesting a Viking who happened to fall into the wrong century. Confounding the Viking image is an easy grin and a soft-spoken manner—and a man-sized skateboard standing in a corner of his office.
He offers a lengthy list of duties that go with the executive-director title, beginning with writing applications for grants. At $200 a day for the use of a kitchen, the 70 BRFV clients cover only about half the cost of keeping the freezers freezing and the ovens cooking. The rest comes from grants offered by organizations such as the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center, the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Asheville Merchants Fund, and the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina.
The BRFV operates under the banner of Advantage West, a nonprofit economic development partnership that has worked in the 23 counties of Western North Carolina for the past 20 years.
To increase the number of clients and, not so incidentally, the BRFV income, Chris is expanding the reach of the kitchens. Until now it has served the 23 counties of Western North Carolina, but the outreach plan envisions attracting entrepreneurs from other parts of North Carolina and surrounding states.
“We‘re developing a co-packing program,” Chris says. “We’re going to hire a crew of workers who can do production for you if you’re outside the region. So if you live in Tennessee or some place that makes it hard to get here, we’ll do the production for you, or we’ll help you find a staff of experienced workers to do it. Then we can ship the product to you or to your customers.” Chris hopes the expanded territory produces an expanded roster of clients to minimize down-time in the kitchens and maximize BRFV income.
Another income-producing program that serves both local farmers and retail customers is Winter Sun Farms, a community-supported agriculture program that provides flash frozen fruits and vegetables to members from December through March. More than 50 area farmers supply produce, which is prepped, flash frozen and packaged. The packages are then distributed monthly to members. Depending on the farmers’ crops for any given year, the winter bounty could include raspberries, blackberries, salad greens, squash, green beans, sweet potatoes, okra, and whatever else the local farmers may produce.
Priced at $125 for the season, members pick up monthly packages of fruits and veggies through the winter. Each package contains seven or eight items. Distribution sites are at the BRFV kitchens in Enka. For an extra $10 a season, members can pick up their packages at the Grove Arcade or in Flat Rock or Black Mountain. And for a $20 surcharge, BRFV will deliver the Winter Sun crops to a distribution point in Greenville, South Carolina.
The Winter Sun program is relatively small, but Chris Reedy says it is the perfect example of the “farm-to-table” concept. “People can get local fruits and vegetables all through the winter, and the farmers get another outlet for their products. It’s the kind of thing we take real pride in.”
Chris could also take pride in the comments of his kitchen clients who depend on BRFV for the equipment they need—and for much more than that.
Cara Steinbuchel has produced Cara Mae Skin Care products for 10 years. She developed her potters’ skin butter when she became aware of the pottery artisans in the Asheville area and began to notice the damage to their hands. “My sales have doubled or even tripled since I began working here,” she says. “Before I came here, I could produce about 60 jars a day at home. Now I can produce 450 jars a day.”
Cara talks about the business advice she gets at BRFV, and she echoes several other clients when she mentions a sense of community among the dealers. “The community aspect of it is important. These dealers have experience and they’re happy to share what they know. It’s like we’re all in this together.”
Tommy Ingallinera and Sara Krug were running empty packages on a conveyor belt past a device that was stamping expiration dates on them. The packages would soon be filled with Smiling Hara Tempeh.
Tommy said the equipment at BRFV had allowed Smiling Hara to increase production from about 300 pounds to 1,000 pounds a day. Alex picked up his thought: “This enables a small business to become competitive. Plus, with all these different food entrepreneurs under one roof, there’s a lot of shared knowledge. This place is an invaluable community resource.”
A community resource that, in Chris Reedy’s words, stretches all the way to the American dream.
Businesses that got their start at Blue Ridge Food Ventures (partial list)
Bushelle Seasonings (fresh herbal seasonings)
Chef Ricardo’s (tomato sauces)
Dolci di Maria (gluten-free sweets)
Lenny Boy Kombucha
Lusty Monk Mustard
Sadie’s Caribbean Fish Cakes
World’s Best Carrot Cakes
*NOTE: Unlike a traditional business incubator, there is no process or length of time for “graduating” from Blue Ridge Food Ventures. We use the term loosely and informally. Any business can continue to use Blue Ridge for as long as they wish; everyone pays by the hour for use of the facility and equipment and rents space, if they wish, for storage of inventory or supplies. In many of the cases above, businesses “outgrew” the space at Blue Ridge and moved into their own production facility.