Asheville’s food pioneers: John Swann rejects the idea that bigger is better

GREEN HORIZONS: Katuah Market owner John Swann began his lifetime of advocating for local farm and grocery connections working with food cooperatives in Tucson, Ariz. and Boone, N.C. in the 1970s. Photo by Jayson Im

John Swann has no problem admitting his aversion to big business. “I’m not a good corporate guy,” he says. “I’m way too entrepreneurial.”

Katuah Market owner Swann has had his hands in natural foods since the early 1970s, when he worked with the famous Food Conspiracy Co-op in Tuscon, Ariz. and later managed the Mountain Food Cooperative in Boone. Then for several years in the late ’80s and early ’90s he owned Bean Mountain Tofu in Boone and, later, Weaverville, before selling his company in 1992.

He transitioned back to groceries when he took on the role of grocery manager at Earth Fare in 1995. With a college background in systems engineering and his experience in regional food distribution, he went on to help Earth Fare develop five more stores until the company’s increasingly corporate atmosphere compelled him to bail out in 2002.

The next chapter in Swann’s grocery journey was a bittersweet love affair called Greenlife Grocery. The highly successful Merrimon Avenue store he opened in 2004 with Chattanooga, Tenn. grocer Chuck Pruitt was sold without his consent to Whole Foods in 2010.

“My partner sold it,” he explains. “It was not on my agenda, but I didn’t control the company so I couldn’t stop it.”

From there, he spent three years planning and searching for an appropriate and affordable site for a new venture. (He wanted the site occupied now by Trader Joe’s — which is near the home he had previously bought to be within walking distance of Greenlife — but it was far out of his price range, he says.)

Swann opened Katuah Market in Biltmore Village in December 2013, with a sharp focus on supporting the local economy by offering small-scale farmers and food entrepreneurs a place to market their goods. Katuah Market now offers about 300 products from local vendors — more, he says, than any other store in town.

He supports farmers by agreeing to sell their produce based on his knowledge of their farming practices rather than requiring that they be certified organic, a designation which is both too costly and time-consuming for many new growers to achieve.

“Having relationships with farmers is more important than the word ‘organic’” Swann says. “Places like Hickory Nut Gap Farm, they’re not all-organic, they’re not all non-GMO, but they are working hard to make that happen, and we want to support that.”

Swann says he has become increasingly involved with community organizations over the last decade working to encourage the growth of the local food economy. He served as vice president of ASAP and has been heavily involved with Blue Ridge Food Ventures, helping teach young businesspeople about product development and how to bring their goods to market. Swann played an advisory role in launching businesses including Buchi, Lusty Monk and Jack’s Nut Butters, among others.




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