Behind the food scene: A network of diverse businesses keeps Asheville’s restaurant industry cooking

KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL:  From left, Modesto owners Hector and Aimee Diaz meet in the kitchen with Mountain Area Restaurant Vendors members  Savannah Price of ADT, Mac Minaudo of Blue Ridge Biofuels and Lee Gavalas of Performance Food Groups. The businesses and other MARV members help support Asheville's restaurant scene with goods and services.
KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL: From left, Modesto owners Hector and Aimee Diaz meet in the kitchen with Mountain Area Restaurant Vendors members Savannah Price of ADT, Mac Minaudo of Blue Ridge Biofuels and Lee Gavalas of Performance Food Groups. The businesses and other MARV members help support Asheville's restaurant scene with goods and services. Photo by Cindy Kunst

There’s a silent element to Asheville’s successful restaurant scene that many foodies probably seldom consider: Behind the unforgettable flavors, crave-worthy cocktails and James Beard nominations bubbles a vibrant but unobtrusive community of diverse ancillary businesses.

Since 2010, the members of the Mountain Area Restaurant Vendors organization have worked together, tapping into the growth of the area’s hospitality industry while their multitude of offerings quietly help keep Foodtopia humming along. The group serves dual purposes, acting as a support and information network for member businesses and providing a one-stop source for local food and beverage businesses in need of services. Members provide everything from financial to promotional to technical services as well as an array of utilitarian solutions — from keeping the lights on to collecting and repurposing used cooking oil.

This year, the nonprofit group, which now counts 19 member businesses, aims for a more robust presence in Western North Carolina. It’s set to debut a brand-new website this month, and its membership is expanding with a growing roster of vendors from multiple sectors.

Keeping it simple

“The Asheville area can be a tough place to open a restaurant and break into [the business],” says Michelle Fleckner, MARV secretary and vice president of Human Capital Management for member business the Platinum Group. “Having a group like MARV to double-check the vendors you’re using can help avoid costly errors and provide access to the best available options to support your business.”

MARV originated, Fleckner says, when two Asheville-based companies — restaurant brokerage firm National Restaurant Properties and property management group Leslie & Associates — joined forces to solve some problems the local hospitality industry was encountering at the time. The two businesses, which are still active in MARV, then began building a diversified membership of local vendors in order to address the full range of dilemmas and needs restaurants experience.

“Each vendor plays a unique role in a restaurant’s success, and our goal is to simplify how a restaurant goes about finding what they need to be successful in one location,” she explains.

Although there are other restaurant vendor associations established in cities throughout the country, MARV diverges from many of them in its focus, according to Fleckner. “Our group is unique because we actually work together with restaurants. We don’t just meet and discuss restaurant news — we call on each other to help our customers out,” she says. “We all live here and care about serving our customers, so we recommend people who we trust. We know that the ‘go local’ model works, and when locally owned businesses stick together, we share in each other’s growth and success.”

To ensure its value as a resource to the restaurant community, MARV carefully vets its members. To join the organization, says Fleckner, a representative from the prospective business must attend one of the twice-monthly lunch meetings, which are held “to discuss restaurant trends and additional ways MARV can increase its value.” Appropriately, these gatherings take place at local restaurants.

Afterward, the members vote on whether or not to admit the potential newcomer. The group only considers adding new members who offer services that aren’t already represented, and applicants must receive unanimous support from the membership to be invited to join.

Once admitted, members must continue to uphold the organization’s high expectations. Ed Sullivan, owner of Signarama, explains, “If we see that a member is not meeting the standard, then they will be asked to leave so that we are and remain a trusted resource for the restaurant and bar owners.”

Personal connections

Some of the vendors in the MARV network earn 100 percent of their annual revenue from working with area restaurants and bars, while others hover in the 25-40 percent range. The Platinum Group, for example, has more than 85 clients in the hospitality sector, comprising more than 30 percent of its business. It provides accounting and payroll services and helps restaurants “mitigate their risk in managing people and avoid costly tax penalties and fines from not meeting compliance requirements,” says Fleckner. About 60 percent of Signarama’s business is with the hospitality industry, including recently producing fleet graphics, exterior lit signage and Department of Transportation signs for Highland Brewing Co.’s recent rebranding.

Performance Foodservice, however, depends even more on the hospitality sector. Headquartered in Virginia with its nearest office in Hickory, the company serves about 30 accounts in the Asheville restaurant community. Area Manager Lee Gavalas says the MARV organization is “a great way for us to learn from others in our field. We can use these relationships within MARV and provide solutions to our customers.”

National Restaurant Properties, which has an independent office in Asheville, earns 100 percent of its income from clients in the local food and beverage industries. As one of the founders of MARV, broker Brian Good says. the original goal was “to create our Angie’s List, if you will, of top resources for restaurateurs in the Western North Carolina area and help a lot of new and relocating businesses get established in the area.” But unlike Angie’s List, MARV’s resources are free to use.

As a boutique brokerage and real estate firm, NRP clients buy and sell breweries nationwide. “We help with lease negotiations, business plans, attaining all permits including building and ABC permits. We also help longtime owners create a retirement or exit strategy,” Good explains.

The desire to network with and reduce costs for Asheville’s restaurateurs is a common theme among vendors. Kurtis Powers of Happy Tap NC, which cleans and maintains tap lines, says he values opportunities for “making personal connections with real human beings in the service industry.”

Member vendor Blue Ridge Biofuels actually pays restaurants for their used cooking oil, creating another potential income stream for businesses that often run on very tight margins. Mac Minaudo, the company’s client services and business development manager, says he currently has over 1,200 accounts, with about a third of all his new clients coming through MARV leads.

“MARV offers exposure to other avenues of obtaining leads for restaurants that are opening or expanding or even changing hands,” he says. “Often we get busy in our lines of work and put our heads down to get the job done. It’s great to look up and see how others are working and collaborate. It’s more efficient than how we would normally work.”

As MARV transitions into its next chapter, Fleckner lists some lofty goals for the organization, including continuing to simplify the way restaurants meet their business needs, making MARV a “definitive source” for hospitality businesses throughout Western North Carolina and upstate South Carolina, and to attract more quality vendors to the group. By 2019, she says, MARV has its sights set on being the “best go-to place for all restaurant resources and needs.”

Mountain Area Restaurant Vendors’ new website is set to launch Friday, May 18, at marvwnc.com. 

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