Niche markets: Asheville is fertile ground for growing specialty food shops

CHIPPING IN: Gourmet Chip Co. co-owner and founder Neala Steury moved to Asheville from Los Angeles to start her handmade potato chip business based on her own craving for a shop that carried salty snacks. Photo by Peter Montague

Asheville’s burgeoning food scene and small-business culture have paved the way for original endeavors when it comes to boutique and specialty food shops. “Asheville is a little bit of a magical place,” says Ginger Frank, owner and founder of Poppy Popcorn. “People can dream things, and it becomes reality.”

Success in business came quickly if not easily for Frank. Just four years ago, she was recently divorced with small children to care for at home. “I was in survival mode,” she says.

A shortage of professional opportunities in Asheville provided motivation for entrepreneurship. “I put everything that I possibly had into this business, and I was willing to take the risk. If I can do this, anyone can do it,” Frank says. “I did not start with money in my pocket. I don’t have a big bank account anywhere. It’s just hard work and treating people well. When you treat people well and surround yourself with good people, good things come back to you.”

Since it launched in 2014, Poppy Popcorn has blossomed into an expanding business with 40 employees and retail locations in both Asheville and Black Mountain. Poppy’s products can be found in every state, at about 1,500 retail locations across the country. In addition to its retail and wholesale markets, Poppy’s business model also includes event catering and fundraising and corporate gift programs.

Frank, who has a background in retail and merchandising, says popcorn has served as a vehicle for building a creative, successful local business that will also hopefully generate more good local jobs. She acknowledges that Asheville’s culture and economy have both pros and cons, including a rising cost of living. But the negatives are balanced by the city’s gracious, supportive community, she says, where “people are rooting for each other.”

Frank also cites the appeal of Asheville as a brand in and of itself. Poppy’s Asheville Mix popcorn, a blend of salted caramel and white cheddar, is popular with customers across the country, she notes, leading her to believe that consumers are drawn to anything Asheville.

POP STAR: When Ginger Frank launched her popcorn company, Poppy, in 2014, she was recently divorced with small children to care for. Her business now has 40 employees with retail locations in Asheville and Black Mountain. Pictured, from left, are Brooklyn Rowland, Caleb Wright and LeeAnn Taylor. Photo by Rachael McIntosh

PJ Jackson, one of the owners of The Chop Shop Butchery, agrees with Frank that Asheville offers fertile soil in which small businesses can flourish. Like Frank, he uses the word “magical” to describe the dream-to-reality culture that Asheville has the potential to provide. “It feels a little fairy-tale, to be honest with you,” Jackson reflects. “Maybe it’s a little Euro, part of the Ashevillean lifestyle.”

However, like Poppy Popcorn, The Chop Shop, located on North Charlotte Street near downtown, has survived due to more than a little elbow grease. Since taking over ownership of the business three years ago, Jackson has emphasized top-notch customer service as well as community education. The shop regularly offers butchery classes to the public, such as a poultry/turkey butchery class in preparation for Thanksgiving and a DIY sausage and beer class.

Staff training and personalized customer service are also important to Jackson. He knows Chop Shop customers are looking for connection and quality. ”People don’t walk into a wine shop and ask what’s on sale,” he says, adding that The Chop Shop customers appreciate knowing where their meat comes from. Farmers are paid directly, and Jackson is proud of the fact that he has never haggled with a farmer over the price of meat.

Jackson also sees owner involvement as another key to success. Customers like seeing his whole family working at the shop, he says, and he reports that his staff members know about 75 percent of the 60-180 customers who stop by each day.

Downtown’s Gourmet Chip Co. is the brainchild of co-owner Neala Steury, who moved to Western North Carolina from Los Angeles in 2010 with the plan to open a small food business in Asheville inspired by her own desire for a snack shop that offered salty and savory flavors rather than sweet ones. “I came up with it because I wanted it — a version of one of those fancy yogurt shops but on chips,” she says.

All of Steury’s recipes are original. Rather than consulting with a chef, she develops flavors that appeal to her own tastes, an approach that has made the business successful since it opened in 2011. The shop’s best-seller by far, says Steury, are the Parisian chips, which feature white truffle spritz, rosemary, thyme and goat cheese. She’s also partial to the Buffalo chips, which are flavored with her original Buffalo sauce, blue cheese and cracked black pepper.

Steury did her research before deciding to open her business in Asheville, ultimately choosing the mountain city because of its adventurous palate and booming tourism industry. “The food culture of Asheville struck me as so open,” she observes.

Recent statistics agree with Steury’s assessment. According to data from the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, 28 out of 83 total grocery stores in Asheville are considered specialty food shops. Furthermore, food and drinking places are among the top five industries in Asheville as reported by the Chamber of Commerce, with accommodations and food services coming in third in terms of job supply.


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About Greta Kent-Stoll
Greta Kent-Stoll is a freelance writer, small business owner and Ayurvedic practitioner. A former educator and long-time Iyengar yoga student, she brings extensive background experience in education and yoga to her Ayurveda practice. In addition to consulting with individual clients, Greta is the co-owner of Iyengar Yoga Asheville and is on staff with the American Herbalists Guild. She regularly publishes articles on Ayurveda, food and herbalism, and has served as an Intern Supervisor with the CA College of Ayurveda.

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