Cottage food businesses offer creative ways to connect with community

Meg's Bake Shop cookies
Rx FOR GRATITUDE: Hand-painted, custom sugar cookies by Meg's Bake Shop send a sweet thanks to medical professionals. Photo courtesy of Megan Doyle

Since COVID-19 began wreaking its havoc in mid-March, business owners have faced unprecedented challenges. But amid the storm clouds, some local entrepreneurs have found silver linings with products that provide innovative ways for customers to connect with family, friends and community.

Ginger Frank launched Poppy Handcrafted Popcorn from a small shop on Merrimon Avenue in 2014. Her all-natural, gourmet popcorn was such a hit she quickly added online ordering and began wholesaling to retail outlets nearby and nationwide, manufacturing and shipping from a production facility in Black Mountain. When the lease on her Merrimon Avenue retail space ended in March, Frank was preparing to move the business downtown. But the coronavirus not only upended that plan, it also had a crushing impact on her wholesale trade, annihilating 80% of her business.

There was some good news, however. “We have had so many people order online it’s been kind of incredible,” she says. “We saw immediately that popcorn seemed to become a comfort food with parents sending it to their kids, friends to friends, companies to staff working remotely.”

In response, Frank put together themed popcorn bundles of four assorted flavors. “It seems ridiculous we weren’t doing that before,” she says. “Thank you, COVID, for that aha moment. Online orders are definitely what got us through those first couple months, and with that jump and wholesale accounts reopening, we’ve been able to hire back almost all of our 28 employees.”

Jessie Dean introduced Asheville Tea Co. at tailgate markets in 2016. Her 10 blends of craft teas with regionally sourced herbs and botanicals struck a chord in the wellness and craft beverage markets; she added wholesale to restaurants, cafes and retail in 2017 and an online store in 2018. Dean was preparing to unveil new eco-friendly packaging and artwork in March, but the pandemic pushed the pause button.

“We were a little behind anyway, so we used April and May to focus on pulling those final pieces together,” Dean says. While many of her wholesale accounts were shuttered, online ordering took a leap — particularly popular were her themed gift boxes. “I think people were looking for a way to creatively connect with family and friends they can’t see, so they’re sending them tea boxes. Writing their caring messages on our gift cards has really been one of the sweetest parts for us through this.”

Megan Doyle has also observed kind and encouraging messages being conveyed through the made-to-order, hand-decorated sugar cookies she produces and ships to customers through her Marshall-based business, Meg’s Bake Shop. Doyle moved to Asheville in 2018 from South Florida, where she had a successful flan business but quickly made a shift to a more crowd-pleasing niche in her new hometown. “No one here was familiar with flan,” she says with a laugh. “Everybody loves cookies.”

Along with a significant uptick in sales since stay-at-home orders were put in place, Doyle has noticed that some customers are using the sweets to acknowledge the efforts of front-line workers in the ongoing health crisis.

“People are shipping them for birthdays and special occasions when they can’t be together to celebrate, but the nicest thing is seeing people send them to doctors and nurses to say thank you,” she says.


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About Kay West
Kay West began her writing career in NYC, then was a freelance journalist in Nashville for more than 30 years, including contributing writer for the Nashville Scene, Nashville correspondent for People magazine, author of five books and mother of two happily launched grown-up kids. In 2019 she moved to Asheville and continued writing (minus Red Carpet coverage) with a focus on food, farming and hospitality. She is a die-hard NY Yankees fan.

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