“There’s never a dull moment here,” says Michael McDonald, general manager of Blue Ridge Food Ventures, the shared-use kitchen and manufacturing facility on A-B Tech’s Enka campus. “We have such a wide variety of users here on any given day.”
Value-added food producers, CBD product makers, bakers and caterers are among the small businesses sharing the two commercial kitchens, grinding room, natural products facility, fermentation space, freezer, cooler, dry storage and co-packing services within the 11,000-square-foot building. Food trucks also use BRFV as a place to wash dishes, prep food and — most importantly — dump gray water and replenish with fresh water, which are crucial to operating under health department rules.
Serving a variety of producers with wide-ranging levels of business experience and sales volume is part of BRFV’s mission to help food and natural products entrepreneurs get started or take the next steps on the road to success, McDonald explains.
Having worked with more than 250 clients since it opened in 2005 — and seen nearly three dozen of them graduate to their own production spaces — BRFV is the largest facility in the region offering rented kitchen, production and storage areas. But several other such businesses — known as commercial , commissary, production or shared kitchens — have launched in recent years to help meet the needs and realize the dreams of Western North Carolina’s food and beverage visionaries.
The primary purpose of commissary or commercial kitchens is to provide inspected, licensed food preparation and storage space with commercial-grade equipment on a rental basis. Some also provide fee-based production services, such as bottling and sealing of products, and offer business coaching and mentoring opportunities.
Rentals are by the hour, and rates vary by facility, ranging from $15 to $30. Reduced rates are often offered over a certain number of hours and for off-peak rental times, such as after 10 p.m. Other fees, such as for application processing, orientation and onboarding, cleaning and security deposits and storage, sometimes apply as well.
For No Evil Foods co-founders Sadrah Schadel and Mike Woliansky, access to rented kitchen space was just the launch pad they needed for their business. The pair began developing the recipes for their line of vegan plant-meat products in the kitchen of their home on a dirt road in upstate New York. But it was in Asheville that they took the first steps toward creating a successful company using the shared commercial kitchens at Blue Ridge Food Ventures.
“We moved to Asheville when the company was an idea and not yet fully formed,” Woliansky recalls. “Blue Ridge Food Ventures was on our radar before we arrived here as a resource for kitchen space and help in getting a food business up off the ground. People put a lot of trust in food makers to do the right thing in creating a safe product to put in their body, and Blue Ridge helps you figure out how to do that.”
Schadel and Woliansky started the company in 2014 using $5,000 of personal savings. They rented space two days a week every other week at BRFV to make their products, which they began selling at local farmers markets. In 2018, they moved to their own 16,000-square-foot facility in Weaverville, where they now employ almost 40 people to supply product to local markets, grocery stores and restaurants as well as nationally to Publix and Walmart.
Roots Hummus, founded by Matt Parris in West Asheville in 2006, was already established when he rented space at BRFV in 2010 for a month while his production kitchen in the River Arts District was being renovated. Six years later, Roots moved its bean-cooking operations to BRFV, running production three to four days a week until early 2019, when the company moved to a 27,000-square-foot facility in East Asheville next to Highland Brewing Co.
“Blue Ridge was a huge help to us both times we were there,” says Parris. “That sort of operation is so important to new companies getting through the regulatory red tape when it comes to food production and who don’t have the capital to build their own facility.”
Not long after Charlie Hodge opened Sovereign Remedies craft cocktail bar in 2014, customers began clamoring for a larger menu. “We had great cocktails and a very modest food program,” he says. “As we kept developing, we wanted to get the food program to the same level as the beverages, plus we were getting requests for catering that were hard to meet in the Sovereign kitchen.”
He inquired about booking time at BRFV to supplement the capacity at Sovereign’s own small kitchen but was told there was a waiting list. So Hodge took matters into his own hands. In 2018, he and his father converted a 3,000-square-foot building on Riverside Drive into the The Make Space, a culinary community kitchen that accommodates Sovereign’s needs while renting space and equipment to other businesses to help offset the costs of build-out, maintenance and operations.
The Make Space was a good fit for Susannah Gebhart, founder of OWL Bakery in West Asheville, who found herself with the chance to buy a new European oven to grow her bread program but didn’t have room at OWL to accommodate it. “We couldn’t expand where we were and couldn’t afford to rent and build out another space,” she says, so Hodge’s Make Space was “the perfect opportunity for us both.” OWL moved its bread production to The Make Space in October 2019 (the pastry program remains at OWL) and is currently making and baking there six days a week, 12 hours a day.
In addition to Hodge’s commissary kitchen and OWL’s bread bakers, The Make Space accommodates food trucks and is used by Durham-based vegan cheese company Sama Spread and Hodge’s partner, local farmer, chef and food activist Sunil Patel. The Make Space recently partnered with Patel to launch GoodAF (Good Asheville Food), a collaborative to-go food program. Hodge says The Make Space could probably handle more renters, but he’s opting not to “load up” for now.
McDonald of Blue Ridge Food Ventures says the pandemic has impacted somewhat the demand for the facility’s kitchens, which are open for client use 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “In general, the kitchens are a little more available now because the world has been upside down,” McDonald explains.
With many large events and weddings canceled or postponed by COVID-19, slots have opened at kitchens like BRFV and co-working space Haw Creek Commons that cater to caterers specializing in that sector of the industry. “Before the pandemic, we worked primarily with caterers,” says Haw Creek kitchen cultivator Katey Rudd. “We were as hard hit as they were. I just booked a caterer for the first time since before COVID. She had 32 events cancel last year. We have lots of available time.”
When Ann Gassenheimer and Pat Gallagher moved Vegetable Kingdom — their business of jarred soups, gumbos, sauces and condiments – from Beaufort, S.C., to Asheville in 2017, they began renting kitchen and production space in the large Golden Ray Food Services commercial facility in Sweeten Creek Industrial Park. The couple brought with them some of their own equipment, including Gallagher’s beloved supersized soup kettle, and shares some furnishings, such as sinks and stainless steel tables, with Golden Ray.
Initially, Vegetable Kingdom was the only small business renting time in the Golden Ray facility. But about three years ago, Gassenheimer and Gallagher brought in Bad Art Beverage Co. co-owners Spencer Schultz and Becky Bronson, who were looking to expand their draft soda business.
The larger space proved a business boon for Bad Art when the pandemic suddenly shifted their business model. “We were focused on draft sodas for around 10 accounts around town, but when COVID hit, we pivoted to home delivery of cocktail mixer six-packs,” Schultz says. “Now we’re working on a line of cocktail bitters for home and professional bartenders.”
In recent months, the communal arrangement has grown organically as word spread. Bad Art is in the building one day a week, often working next to Schultz’s brother, Travis Schultz, who cooks there several days a week for New Stock, the burgeoning meal box company he co-founded with pastry chef Ashley Capps. The kitchen is also used by baker Gus Trout and chef Clarence Robinson of Cooking With Comedy Catering. Vegetable Kingdom now also offers preparation, bottling and sealing services at the facility.
The space has become fertile ground for collaboration and growth, says Bronson. “We do mixers for New Stock specific to their weekly theme, so that inspires our creativity,” she says. “We have found a real mentorship here with Ann and Pat. So many things we did not have to learn the hard way — they gave us advice and showed us what is possible.”
Small businesses sharing a production space naturally fosters co-creating and mentoring, says Gassenheimer. “People have great ideas, but often creative people need help in realizing those ideas,” she says. “We think that is one of the best things we do here in a very organic way: sharing what we learned the hard way.”
Gallagher agrees. “After we had been doing this kitchen awhile, I told Ann I wish we had been around when we were starting out and given our younger selves advice. We would have saved ourselves a lot of time.”