Cooking up the biz

When local caterers and food artisans want to dish out the entrepreneurial spirit, many of them head to Blue Ridge Food Ventures, an 11,000-square-foot, shared-use processing facility that enables men and women alike to breathe life into their dreams.

A project of regional economic-development commission AdvantageWest, the facility and its staff have helped a number of locals get started on the path to a successful business, such as Kelly Davis of Lusty Monk Mustards.

Helping fledgling business owners like Davis learn the ropes but dodge costly mistakes — that’s what inspires Mary Lou Surgi, the facility’s executive director. Noting past and current endeavors at Blue Ridge, she says, "All of the businesses here are a little bit a part of me as well as Blue Ridge Food Ventures."

To see what’s cooking these days, Xpress recently visited the facility, located at the A-B Tech’s Enka campus. Here are some of the women in business that inspire Surgi — and vice versa.
For more information about BRFV, visit blueridgefoodventures.org.

Caroline Allured of Caroline Allured Catering

carolinealluredcatering.com

Mountain Xpress: What local woman has inspired you the most?
Caroline Allured:
Mary Lou here at Blue Ridge, [and] this is the best facility I've ever rented space in. It doesn't matter what I need to get accomplished — everything I need is here.

What motivates you to work for yourself?

Originally … I was an actor in New York and I needed another job. But it was so much fun that eventually I made the switch to full-time food.

What challenges do you face as a woman in business?

It was challenging to both raise my children and be a [business] woman. [But] the flexibility to make my own hours [has] facilitated that and helped craft the way that the business grew.

What advantages do women have in business?

This going to sound a little sexist, but … women are so well-organized and so good at synchronistic thinking that — especially in catering — [being a woman] is really crucial and really beneficial. … It [is] a natural feminine ability to be able to balance all the things at once — the kids, the family, the work.

Kimberly Stowe of Thyme at the Table Catering

thymeatthetable@gmail.com, 989-4472

What local woman has inspired you most?
Kimberly Stowe:

Jessica Gualano of the Asheville Wine Studio. She seems to never rest. She's always updating herself, creating new and great things for wine lovers and, most importantly, women…

What motivates you to work for yourself?

Combining two of my heart's desires: Number one is to have a family. Number two, I love food and cooking.

What challenges do you face as a woman in business?

I don't necessarily know if I've met any. The challenges that I have met would come with anybody.

What advantages do women have in business?

We are considered a minority [and can] be certified under the [State’s] Historically Underutilized Business program, [which] means you might be first on a list … to cater a government event, or something similar. It's those little programs that are set in place that have opened things up for me.

Sarah Yancey of Smiling Hara Tempeh

smilingharatempeh.com

What local woman has inspired you the most?
Sarah Yancey:
My mother [Cinthia Yancey], who has worked in Buncombe County Health for 20 years and is now the medical director there. She's always [said], “You can do anything.”

What motivates you to work for yourself?

It's a big stretch for me to step into the leadership position that's required to own a business. It's constantly empowering and putting challenges in my face that I get to step up to, face and take to the next level.

What challenges do you face as a woman in business?

In this day and age, everyone that I'm in business with looks at me with an equal eye. [But] being a mom and owning a business at the same time — that can definitely be a challenge.

What advantages do women have in business?

We're continuing to be empowered and realizing that being a business owner is one way to step into our power and own it — and show the world what we've got to give.

Susan Devitt of GalloLea Organics

gallolea.com

What local woman has inspired you the most?
Susan Devitt:
When [my husband] Tom and I were looking for a business … Tom was making pizzas. One of our friends, Dr. Lea Osborne, the Pet Vet on Patton, would come over all the time and say that we needed to open a restaurant… She was such a motivator, and our biggest fan. GalloLea is a play between her name and my husband's last name.

What motivates you to work for yourself?

I'm used to working on my own. I'm motivated by success and striving for that — and not having any other job.

What challenges do you face as a woman in business?

I do feel sometimes that men can be dismissive. It happens enough that I occasionally get frustrated.

What advantages do women have in business?

I get to be supportive and nurturing, which women a lot of times tend to like to do. I also get to be really creative — I think of that as more the female side of the brain.

Haley Morgan of the Bombay Wrap Company

What local woman has inspired you the most?
Haley Morgan:
My daughter. She's in culinary school. … In the future when she wants to go into business for herself, she can look back and say, "Mom did it, so maybe I can too."

What motivates you to work for yourself?

The main thing was flexibility. [And my husband] had a business that folded up, [so] money was the biggest motivating factor, but also the fact that this is an adventure that we can do together.

What challenges do you face as a woman in business?

Being fearful of how others will accept me as a woman. Will they look at me and think, "Does she really know what she's doing?" [Or] just my own fears of "Can I pull this off?"

What advantages do women have in business?

It's doing what I've done as a woman my whole life, it's just on a bigger scale.

Ghislaine Mahler of Ma Belle France

mabellefrance.com

What local woman has inspired you the most?
Ghislane Mahler:
I would have to say myself, because I do! I'm a very outgoing person, I have a lot of stamina and I'm very positive. [But] last year, my [previous] business died almost overnight because of the economy, so I said, "Ok, I need to reinvent myself." I went back into cooking, which I did when I came to this country 25 years ago from France. I don't give up.

What motivates you to work for yourself?

The desire to really reconnect with my culture. With that comes … the desire to share my culture with other people through the food.

What challenges do you face as a woman in business?

Most of the well-known chefs are men, although that's starting to change. It's been very much of a male world, yet in the family environment, it's mostly the women who do the cooking. I've always wondered why all the chefs are men, when I think the women are better cooks.

What advantages do women have in business?

As a woman, I'm able to connect with the customers more, establish a rapport more rapidly. Maybe it's easier for some to be approached by a woman. And … maybe three-quarters [of my clients] are women. Many times, the woman is in charge of buying the food for the family.

Karen Jankovitz of KC's Dawg Pound

What woman has inspired you the most?
Karen Jankovitz:
My silent partner Connie Birchum. I had lost my job, and she had thought that I might be interested in doing something like this. I got involved in it, and now I'm having a ball.

What motivates you to work for yourself?

It's hard to work for yourself because you're the only motivator, but honestly, the people that come to see me motivate me because they enjoy the food.

What challenges do you face as a woman in business?

[No more] than anyone else faces. Things have changed over the years, and it's wonderful.

What advantages do women have in business?

Conversation comes easy to us. … You're like a bartender when you're a food vendor. You listen and you talk, and people just want to lay their guts out on the table for you, tell you all about their problems — and they keep coming back.

Linda Brown of The Chef's Table

ncchefstable.com

What local woman inspires you the most?
Linda Brown:
My business partner Bronwen McCormick. We both teach [culinary school at A-B Tech, but] we wanted to do something where we could make the decisions, we could grow the business, we could do what we wanted and further our career with our own interests.

What motivates you to work for yourself?

When we're in the kitchen cooking for 14 hours, it's still ours and it's fun. We also use our profits to further our education, so for us, it's fun. Plus, we get to get our hands dirty like we don't at school.

What challenges do you face as a woman in business?

Time management and balancing our current careers with our home life and our business. Bronwen, for example, has a little girl. That adds a whole dimension to it.

What advantages do women have in business?

We have very strong retail backgrounds, [which] helps us in marketing our business and the book side. Most of our customers are women who come to us looking for a healthy alternative — something quick and easy, but something that they can put in good faith on the table for their family. We cook the way we want to eat.

Olive Stewart of Bushelle Seasonings

bushelleseasonings.com

What local woman has inspired you the most?
Olive Stewart:
Jill Frazier [of BRFV]. She assisted me initially and gave me a lot of pointers on what I was doing right — and what I was doing wrong.

What motivates you to work for yourself?

I get excited that every day is different, whether it's good, bad or indifferent. … To get a call from a prospective market, that's just so exciting. And the fact that I don't have to get dressed and put on a uniform every day.

What challenges do you face as a woman in business?

So many people give you information, but then there's a lot of people who withhold information, and I'm wondering if it's because I'm a minority or because I'm a woman.

What advantages do women have in business?

Male or female, in this particular industry and at this level, I don't see any advantages or disadvantages for either. … Sometimes women can be more personable than men, [and] my presentation — my tables, for example — are a bit nicer, where a man might just throw some bowls down.

Leslie Suber of Sadie's Caribbean Fish Cakes

sadiesfishcakes.com

Who inspires you the most as a woman in business?
Leslie Suber:
Mary Lou [Surgi] and Jill [Frazier of BRFV]. The food business course … at A-B Tech was the catalyst for this whole project [and] gave me everything that I needed to get started.

What inspires you to work for yourself?

I've always been fiercely independent. I've always had ideas [and] I've always been drawn to entrepreneurs — people that put themselves out there, take the chance and make themselves successful and earn money with their own ideas.

What challenges do you face as a woman in business?

Some store owners may not necessarily take me seriously. Or if they see me coming, they might have a certain perception, until we begin speaking. … I kind of work through those issues or obstacles. I can be pretty forceful in a lovely way.

What advantages do women have in business?

We are wired to be multi-taskers, and to just push through when something needs to [be done]… We're wired to do those types of things, so I think we're naturally going to persevere.

For more about Blue Ridge Food Ventures, visit www.advantagewest.org.

— Mackensy Lunsford can be reached at mlunsford@mountainx.com and food@mountainx.com.

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