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.” avl.mx/av6
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.”
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.” avl.mx/ava
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.
“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.” avl.mx/avf