That big, golden circle on Asheville's Horizon? It's not the sun — it's a doughnut, a yeasty paczki (pronounced punch-key) filled with apricot and chili pepper caramel sauce, to be exact.
Ron and Valerie Patton took first place in The Big Tasty food business competition in March with their plan for Vortex Doughnuts. They hope to sell gourmet, “twisted” doughnuts that showcase local ingredients. With the $2,500 prize in their pockets, they're looking for a space to set up shop.
“It's an adventure,” says Ron, an IT consultant and author of a book about software testing. “We've been going to a lot of doughnut shops within one-day's drive.” They're also inspired by Top Pot Doughnuts in Seattle, where they lived before coming to Asheville.
While Ron heads up marketing and accounts, Valerie concocts the doughnuts. Much of her cooking experience comes from managing impromptu kitchens as a volunteer for the Red Cross.
She enjoys experimenting with flavor combinations and drawing from many sources. Lately, she's pouring over Nathan Myhrvold's massive, science-based cookbook, Modernist Cuisine. “I really don't like the chemicals and all that, but there are lots of approaches that I do like, especially with pressure cooking carrots and sweet potatoes and bringing out that caramelized taste in a real quick time,” she says.
Global flavors intrigue her, as well. She tops doughnuts with sherry-soaked sugar crystals, and she's planning Indian-spice combinations, such as orange zest and fennel seed.
The Big Tasty started in October with 58 ideas for food-based businesses and products. A panel of judges narrowed those entries to eight finalists from all over North Carolina. By March, six of the eight remained. While only three of those contestants received trophies, The Big Tasty was more of a testing ground than a battlefield. “I don't think of this as a competition,” Valerie told Xpress shortly before the winners were announced. “We're all students in a classroom.”
Smoky Mountain Sweet Potato Jerkey received a runner-up award with a $1,000 prize, plus 50 free hours in the Blue Ridge Food Ventures test kitchen. The vegan snack food is the creation of an Asheville-based trio, Ben and Anna Saylor of Higher Ground Rainwater Systems and Daniel Stonestreet, a chef at Eden-Out meal delivery.
“We're going to tackle the markets,” Stonestreet says. He's already working on a jingle, in addition to more conventional marketing. Look for Smoky Mountain Sweet Potato Jerkey at the West Asheville and north Asheville tailgate markets this spring.
A Greensboro-based couple also received runner-up recognition for their salad dressing, Scully's Blue Cheese Vinaigrette.
Advantage West, a WNC-based economic development firm, put on the Big Tasty with support from The North Carolina Tobacco Trust Fund, The Fresh Market and Mountain BizWorks. The test kitchen at Blue Ridge Food Ventures is one of Advantage West's initiatives.
Mary Lou Surgi, executive director of BRFV, says plans for the next Big Tasty are already in the works, contingent upon funding. “We'd like to expand it to give opportunities to more entrepreneurs next year,” she says. “We actually want to have two lines of entries.”
The new arm of The Big Tasty would be called The Big Beauty. It would provide a similar business competition centered around natural products, such as tinctures, supplements and skin care items.