Asheville’s food pioneers: Blue Ridge Food Ventures nurtures local startups

KITCHEN CAST: Blue Ridge Food Ventures Executive Director Chris Reedy (back) is pictured with UliMana staff members (back row, from left) Heather Roy, Lisa Abeling and Koalani DeBoer, and (front row, from left) Allie Bales, Griffin Abee and Jenna Payne in one of the facility's kitchens. Photo by Jayson Im

It’s Saturday morning, and Blue Ridge Food Ventures is redolent with the sharp scent of fresh-cut ginger. Located on A-B Tech’s Enka campus, the big industrial space has become the base of operations for roughly 60 entrepreneurs at any given time. Open 24 hours a day, the kitchens are used for everything from rolling raw chocolate truffles to baking bagels to fermenting tempeh, dehydrating ghost peppers and packaging salad dressings. Saturdays are actually on the quieter side, and the first client in the kitchens is Jackson Anderson, co-owner of Blue Blaze Soda & Syrup Co. Anderson and his two-man team are busy processing an impressive amount of fresh ginger for their honey ginger ale syrup.

For Anderson, partnering with Blue Ridge Food Ventures was an obvious choice. “They have the whole setup that we need,” he explains, “everything you see here, from the pallet jack to the steam pedal. So it’s kind of the easiest path for us to give this a try and see if it will work.”

The all-natural soda company is just over a year old, but there’s good reason to think Anderson can realize his dream. Others have already built viable businesses in partnership with Blue Ridge Food Ventures: Perhaps the biggest beverage success story to get its start here is Buchi Kombucha. In addition, Blue Blaze recently got a distribution deal through RC Cola. “These are the kinds of baby steps we need to hopefully continue to grow outside the Asheville area,” says Anderson.

Blue Ridge Food Ventures is a subset of AdvantageWest, a nonprofit regional economic development partnership serving Western North Carolina. The facility attracts many entrepreneurs who, like Anderson, need access to equipment that would be too expensive or impractical to purchase themselves. Other clients seek business advice, branding consultation or assistance with regulatory compliance and product development. In other words, all the things a new business owner needs in order to become successful and profitable.

That kind of guidance is particularly crucial for, say, the person who might have a killer hot sauce recipe but has no clue how to get those bottles onto grocery store shelves. “A lot of people that we see are really more artisans than true production people,” Executive Director Chris Reedy explains. “Some of them may have business backgrounds, some of them may have food backgrounds, but there’s a big difference between working in a retail-style restaurant kitchen and working in a production kitchen. So what we try to do is really tailor our services to the people who need that kind of help.”

A key player

Lusty Monk Mustard founder Kelly Davis is a great example of that type of client. “When I was starting out, I knew nothing about food processing: I just liked messing with recipes,” she says. “I had met Mary Lou Surgi [the facility’s former executive director] through some slow-food events, and when I decided to switch my mustard hobby over to a business, I went to talk to her.” At the time, Davis was offered free classes on regulatory processes and marketing, but that was only part of what she needed.

“The ability to rent a kitchen that had lots of equipment was a godsend,” she recalls. “I learned how to run the filler, calibrate things, set up a labeling machine, and I met other food folks who already knew what they were doing and had lots of great advice. Where do I get jars? How do food labels get approved by the state? How do I figure out pricing? Which grocery stores are buying local stuff? What accounting software should I get? How many cases fit on a pallet? Stuff like that.”

And though Davis has since moved on to her own space, she still stops by to see what’s new in the kitchens and exchange information with like-minded foodies and businesspeople. “The food scene in Asheville just keeps getting better. So many people have great ideas, and I think Blue Ridge has been a key player in that,” says Davis. “For a lot of people, Blue Ridge is a great way to figure out if your business idea is going to work without spending all the money on high-end equipment. And the support is there.”

Launched in 2003, the program was originally envisioned as a way to help farmers process their foods and excess crops. Through the Winter Sun Farms CSA, for example, Blue Ridge Food Ventures buys fresh produce from farmers, processes and freezes it, then distributes it to subscribers during the winter.

But as Reedy notes, the program has since seen an onslaught of creative locals hoping to turn their home recipes into a profitable business. “One of the things we found out pretty quickly is that … folks who had these specialty food ideas were just coming in droves. … Since about July of 2005 we’ve progressively seen these kinds of things that have really started to take over.”

Manifesting visions

One of the program’s longest-tenured clients is UliMana, started by single mom Theresa Green in 2005. “Yes, we do have people who are doing salsas and hot sauces and those very traditional kinds of things,” says Reedy. “So it’s interesting when someone like Theresa … comes in and says, ‘Hey, I have this idea for raw, vegan chocolate.’ And at the time everybody was like, ‘Well, what’s the big deal? It’s just chocolate.’ But those kinds of specialized diets, or the increased consciousness of how people are eating now, is really starting to change the demand in the market.” Nearly 10 years later, Green is Blue Ridge Food Ventures’ biggest client.

“Since I only produce once or twice a week, it is perfect for me,” she says. “I love the community atmosphere that provides a place for a person with a good idea to bring it into manifestation. … My business was able to go national because of this space.”

For Reedy, Green’s story is part of the bigger picture when it comes to the region’s food system. “When I look at a food system, I think everything starts with agriculture and the farmer,” he says. “If you have a really nice agriculture system and a good way to distribute that, either through tailgates or if the restaurants are really buying, then that’s a great base.

“I don’t think it ends there, though. What I really think is the cool thing — for people who go to tailgate markets, Whole Foods, Earth Fare or Katuah Market or the French Broad Food Co-op or Haywood Market — is that not only do they get to buy their tomatoes and onions and beef and pork and chicken and duck eggs all locally, but they get to buy vegan raw chocolate that’s made locally or the barbecue sauce that’s made locally. … Let’s face it: Not many communities throughout the U.S. have the diversity of products that are made in our area.”

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About Lea McLellan
Lea McLellan is a freelance writer who likes to write stories about music, art, food, wellness and interesting locals doing interesting things.

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