On her terms: Asheville women create sustainable food businesses

SUSTAINABLE MIX: Abeja's House Cafe owner Martha Alejeo say that although traditional Mexican cuisine often doesn't have a focus on sustainabilty, her business draws inspiration from Asheville's local food movement to create a tasty and sustainable blend. Photo by Cindy Kunst

“Asheville is a place with a strong entrepreneurial culture, because mountain people have always been independent by choice and by force,” says Jodi Rhoden, former owner of Short Street Cakes and teacher of the Foundations of Business course at Mountain BizWorks. “Small women’s businesses are one form of that.” As Asheville’s food sector has grown in recent years, many women business owners have made environmental sustainability a central tenet of their enterprises.

Sustainable seas

Heidi Dunlap has always had her sea legs. The first six years of her life were spent sailing the world with her family, and she was working as a boat deckhand at the age of 15. Dunlap has fished for wild salmon in Bristol Bay, Alaska, for 20 consecutive years. And, since 2010, she and her partner, Steve Maher, have turned this effort into the Wild Salmon Co. — a venture that brings their Alaska harvest back every fall to sell in Asheville markets.

“There are approximately 1,600 boats that fish in Bristol Bay every year, and I’d guess that less than 10 percent are [operated by] women,” Dunlap says. “But there are substantially more women fishing than there were 10 years ago.” And while many of the world’s fisheries are becoming depleted, the salmon in Bristol Bay are as abundant as ever. In fact, the summer 2016 salmon run had 51 million fish — the second-highest total in 20 years.

SUSTAINABLE CATCH: Heidi Dunlap has spent 20 straight summers fishing for wild Pacific salmon in Bristol Bay, Alaska, using sustainable methods. She now co-owns the Wild Salmon Co. with her partner, Steve Maher, and brings her harvest back to sell in Asheville markets every fall.
SUSTAINABLE CATCH: Heidi Dunlap has spent 20 straight summers fishing for wild Pacific salmon in Bristol Bay, Alaska, using sustainable methods. She now co-owns the Wild Salmon Co. with her partner, Steve Maher, and brings her harvest back to sell in Asheville markets every fall. Photo courtesy of Heidi Dunlap

Dunlap credits this trend to the bay’s undisturbed natural habitat and firm fishing regulations. “Biology dictates the management of Bristol Bay, not politics or fisherman pressure,” she says. “This is one of the only extractive resource industries in the world where we can harvest half of the resource each season, and it still replenishes itself year after year.”

The Wild Salmon Co. continues sustainable thinking through its methods of transportation. “We ship our fish from Alaska to Seattle by tug and barge, which is the most carbon-efficient way to transport millions of tons of goods,” Dunlap says.  Then, instead of using the popular air-shipping method, “a trucking company drives from Seattle to our cold-storage in Flat Rock.”

Once in Asheville, Dunlap spends the fall selling fish to customers in the region through local markets, food co-ops and restaurants, as well as to 27 regional buying clubs reaching as far as Raleigh and Atlanta. She believes that offering her products can help combat the frequent mislabeling of wild-caught Pacific salmon in grocery stores and restaurants, which are often actually farmed Atlantic salmon. Her fish are available at Nine Mile and The Market Place, and Dunlap would love to source to more restaurants on a seasonal basis. They can also be ordered online at thewildsalmonco.com.

Reviving tradition

As a seventh-generation resident of Madison County, family history plays a large role in Brandi Morrow’s artisan pickling business. Morrow opened Green River Picklers with her business partner and fiancé, Beau Martin, in 2011, and both were inspired to revive the pickling traditions of their family elders. Together, the two produce seven pickled vegetable varieties — okra, beans, beets, jalapeños and three flavors of cucumbers — at their production facility in Zirconia.

“I think about sustainability as closing the loop, so that any waste comes back and becomes something else,” Morrow says. Her conviction comes from personal experience: Decades ago, Morrow’s family farm was lost to eminent domain and turned into a landfill. “Sustainable waste management was one of my biggest passions for getting into the business, because I know where waste goes,” she says.

Morrow tackles this issue from a number of angles, including using excess produce from local farms and seeking out environmentally conscious ink and adhesive for jar labels. Even the backings of her labels are returned to a company in Mills River to become post-composite wood decking. “There’s a lot of work to do as far as food and environmental legislation goes, but running my own business, I get to create the rules for how we operate and set the standard higher than the law,” she says.

Morrow adds that a strong part of her business philosophy is “co-opitition — not thinking of ourselves as in competition with other artisan producers and farmers, but promoting each other and building each other up,” she says. “There’s a strong network of business owners, especially women, that find ourselves consulting with one another, and the people I vend with at markets become co-workers in a way.”

Morrow hopes her business can grow enough to become employee-owned and that she can bring sustainable food to new audiences. “The foodie scene in Asheville is growing so much … and those are our people. But at the same time, I still want to reach the people I grew up with,” she says.

Cultural blend

In 2001, Martha Alejeo and her two young sons emigrated from Puebla, Mexico, to join her husband, Rafael Alejeo, in Asheville. She began working as a dishwasher in a now-closed restaurant in Fairview and was offered a position baking at Sunny Point Café in 2008. There, she was first exposed to vegetarian and gluten-free baking. “Little by little, I learned to work with fresh and local ingredients to fit dietary needs I’d never heard of in Mexico,” she says.

After over 14 years of working in the restaurant industry, the couple followed a long-held dream and used their savings to open their own business, Abeja’s House Café, on Hendersonville Road in 2015. “Rafael had mastered working in the kitchen, and I’d mastered the bakery,” Martha says. “We came together and said, ‘Why don’t we open something of our own?’”

The menu at Abeja’s House features locally sourced Americana brunch food with what Alejeo calls a “Latino touch,” apparent in dishes like her Mexican omelette with pico de gallo and chorizo sausage (sourced from Hickory Nut Gap farm) and gluten-sensitive Mexican chilaquiles. The café has already met with great success — it’s the only brunch spot in Asheville to hold a five-star rating on Yelp.

Traditional Mexican cuisine is far from healthy, Martha says, and often has little focus on sustainability. But the Abeja’s menu blends the Alejeos’ Mexican culinary background into the local food movement. “The Latino community [in Asheville] is focusing more on healthy eating and sustainability, and Abeja’s is an accessible way to continue that,” Martha says.

As a native Spanish speaker, Alejeo plans to continue her English-language education and eventually move her restaurant to a larger location with room for a garden where she can directly harvest organic ingredients.



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About Eliza Stokes
Eliza Stokes holds a B.A. in Creative Writing and Global Studies from Warren Wilson College. She received the 2016 Larry Levis Award for outstanding manuscript on behalf of the Warren Wilson MFA Program and has read for the Juniper Bends Reading Series. Eliza is a freelance writer and editor based in Asheville.

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3 thoughts on “On her terms: Asheville women create sustainable food businesses

  1. Snowflake (Social Justice Worrier)

    Alaska Salmon. Wouldn’t touch it. Almost guaranteed to be laced with Fukushima radioactive isotopes. The entire northern Pacific is now contaminated and getting worse each day, but some parts of Alaska were hit especially hard with radioactive fallout plumes.

  2. BMacAVL

    @Snowflake (Social Justice Worrier), you know that the media wants us to think that after 5 years the radioactivity is no longer an issue even with all the whale deaths in early 2016…”Most of these cases have already been solved by scientists: the sperm whales in both Britain and Germany, for example, fell victim to the shallow North Sea, which acts as a whale trap under the wrong conditions.” SAD REALLY:(

    GO PICK UP “Tuxedo Beans” from Green River Picklers for the next BLOODY MARY bar you host! I should have picked up 2 or 3 jars…our guests loved them:)

    Abeja’s House Cafe has great local sourced food! Go check them out for Breakfast or Lunch next time you are in South AVL and if you live down that way and have not stopped by shame on you for missing out on an excellent dining option so close to home. The last several times I have been the DAILY special has been amazing!

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