Snack time: Local food companies offer sweet and savory treats

SNEAKY SNACK: Matthew Brown launched Münki Food Co. with his wife, Gretchen, in 2015. The local company specializes in globally inspired, vegetarian snacks. Photo courtesy of Münki Food Co.

By Savannah Fowler 

With the holiday season in full swing, busy shoppers might be wise to pack a few snacks before heading out to their favorite local shops. Xpress caught up with owners of three WNC-based food companies to discuss the origins of their businesses, how they’ve continued to expand their reach amid the ongoing pandemic, and the sweet and savory goods that fuel their customers.

Locally made, globally inspired

As a vegetarian, Gretchen Brown, co-founder of Münki Food Co., remembers an underwhelming selection of food options when she was growing up. Inspired to create snacks her younger self would have appreciated, she and her husband, Matthew, launched their Asheville-based business in 2015.

Offering vegan, gluten-free and zero-refined-sugar options, Münki Food Co.’s five trail mix products and superfood granola line also feature international flavors, such as curry, Jamaican jerk seasoning and banana-rama. Gretchen credits Matthew, who is originally from England, for inspiring the business’s global theme.

From the very start, says Gretchen, Asheville has been an ideal home for the company. “There is such an interest in good eats here, and the food community isn’t that big — so you get to know everyone involved: suppliers, other makers, store managers, mentors.”

In the early days of the pandemic and amid last year’s shutdown, Gretchen notes, the company experienced a drop in orders it typically filled for weddings, corporate parties and other large events. “We were also in a lot of hotels, so we took a hit there when they had to close,” she says. “But our online presence went up, so there was a good balance.”

Along with the couple’s dedication to healthy snacks, the founders use their business to support their other passion: dogs. Münki’s ongoing “Buy a Bag — Help a Life” campaign donates a portion of every sale to Brother Wolf Animal Rescue.

“I would love to encourage everyone to give back,” Gretchen says. “Whether it’s time or compassion or money or energy — just give it, and the world’s a better place for it.”

Brother and sister

In neighboring Haywood County, siblings Jessica DeMarco and Dan Stubee combined their talents for cuisine and design, respectively, when they launched Copper Pot & Wooden Spoon in 2011. Working with local farms to source the majority of its produce, the company offers a variety of pickled items and jams, along with additional regional products, including Poppy’s Handcrafted Popcorn, Asheville Tea Co. and Hickory Nut Gap.

“We work really well together,” DeMarco says of her brother, “as long as we give each other our respective space.”

NO SIBLING RIVALRY HERE: Since its 2011 debut, Copper Pot & Wooden Spoon continues to evolve its business model, thanks to the brother-and-sister team, Jessica DeMarco and Dan Stubee. Photo courtesy of Copper Pot & Wooden Spoon

Like many local food-based businesses, Copper Pot & Wooden Spoon began small, fine-crafting its recipes while selling at Haywood’s Historic Farmers Market. Within three years, the pair invested in a commercial kitchen and later a storefront at 449 Pigeon St., Suite A, Waynesville.

The company’s primary production season, says DeMarco, is April through October. Last year’s shutdown, she continues, required the business to scale back production, as many of the retail outlets carrying its products were closed.

“We took the downtime to improve our website and online reach, which has replaced the festivals and farmers markets we used to participate in,” DeMarco says. Copper Pot & Wooden Spoon now offers online ordering with local pickup at its storefront, as well.

Despite the company’s commitment to source produce primarily from local and regional farms and to use domestic packaging, supply chain woes continue to impact the business.

“We went months without being able to source jars, lead time on all packaging doubled, and freight costs and ingredient costs have jumped significantly,” says DeMarco. “Order minimums for many bulk products we purchase through food-service distributors has also increased due to staffing and shipping challenges for our suppliers.”

Local support, continues DeMarco, has been crucial for Copper Pot & Wooden Spoon’s survival during these trying times. “The community as a whole has an awareness and appreciation for local small businesses, and we’ve seen much support and loyalty from our customers throughout the challenges of the past year or so,” she says.

And it doesn’t hurt to have a sibling at your side, as well. “It’s nice working with family, because you have this mutual goal,” DeMarco says. “There’s moments, of course, where siblings can be — you know. But we have a lot of skills that complement each other. And we understand each other, so it’s great to be able to work with somebody who gets you. It makes it fun.”

A good Irishman

Back in Buncombe County, Pennsylvania native and Asheville Pretzel Co. founder Steve Michael continues to expand upon his passion for salty delights. The business, he notes, was inspired by Asheville’s reputation as Beer City USA. Unlike the bars and breweries in his home state, Michael discovered a lack of pretzel options at local watering holes upon his arrival in 2015.

Initially, a mechanic by day and an aspiring pretzel-maker by night, Michael slowly built his company one recipe at a time. In the early days, he notes, “It took eight hours to make 15 bags of 4-ounce pretzels. Now, we make 300 bags of pretzels a day.”

In addition to hanging up his mechanic coveralls, Michael now employs three people with one part-time employee.

THESE PRETZELS ARE MAKING ME THIRSTY: When Pennsylvania native Steve Michael first arrived in Asheville in 2015, he was shocked to discover the city’s local breweries didn’t offer pretzels to beer drinkers. Righting that wrong, he launched Asheville Pretzel Co. in 2015. Photo by Savannah Fowler

“We can’t make enough,” he says.  “We went from almost going out of business to working every night and all day Saturdays and Sundays.”

Along with its original, mustard and garlic pretzels, the company has also added dog treats to its inventory. The decision was a no-brainer. “Dog pretzels came about one day when we had a tasting at a local bar,” Michael explains. “I counted 15 people and 22 dogs.”

Like Münki Food Co. and Copper Pot & Wooden Spoon, the pandemic impacted Asheville Pretzel Co.’s bottom line, disrupting its regular distribution to hotels and breweries during the shutdown.

“Without the great people at Ingles we would not still be in business,” Michael says. “The corporate people let me deliver to as many Ingles stores as possible, and all of the store managers have given me space to display all of our products.”

Come the new year, Asheville Pretzel Co. plans to release three new dips — sweet and spicy, chocolate strawberry and honey mustard — in collaboration with local company Vegetable Kingdom. Meanwhile, Michael is also in the planning stages of opening several storefronts, where customers can eat baked goods made on-site while sipping soda or beer.

“So many people have helped us a lot,” says Michael of the company’s ongoing success. “I can’t let them down.”

Fortunately, he adds, “I am half-German and half-Irish. … The Irish side will not let me quit. A good Irishman will work two weeks after he dies, dig his own hole and then bury himself.”


Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.