Making it: What works (and doesn’t) for Asheville food businesses

FREE WHEELING: Michael Hakala of the mobile taco shop/bike repair business The Tacoed Wheel says patience was key in getting his business started. “Figuring out all the permitting and license requirements is enough to make someone go cross-eyed,” he says.
FREE WHEELING: Michael Hakala of the mobile taco shop/bike repair business The Tacoed Wheel says patience was key in getting his business started. “Figuring out all the permitting and license requirements is enough to make someone go cross-eyed,” he says. Photo courtesy of The Tacoed Wheel

What’s the secret ingredient for a successful food business? The answer comes in as many flavors as there are restaurants, food trucks and homegrown food products in the Asheville area: Stick to what you’re good at; put together a great team; know the basics of running a business; adapt to the conditions around you.

But whatever you do, don’t do it alone, because it takes more to start and run a successful food business than simply being a good cook.

These are just a few of the replies Xpress heard from business owners, lenders and coaches.

“Having someone who can cook — that’s great, but [food entrepreneurs] also have to understand the cost of doing business, managing the business and cash flow,” says Zurilma McKeown, microbusiness lender for the Asheville-based nonprofit and entrepreneurial-support organization Mountain BizWorks. “A lot of people come [to us] for loans, but they don’t have the basics.” Whatever the business, its creators need to know about permitting, financing, costs, revenue projections, cash flow, payroll and more, she says.

Chris Reedy agrees. As director of Blue Ridge Food Ventures, he helps entrepreneurs get their products from concept to tailgate market to professional production. “How successful they are depends on how closely their vision matches the reality,” he says. Many food entrepreneurs have a great idea and a great product but no business experience, especially in marketing their product or knowing how to navigate food-safety and permitting requirements, Reedy says. “They’re going to have to learn.”

And they’ll have to adapt “to the competition around [them] — and there’s more of that in Asheville — and adapt to what’s happening in their lives,” says Mark Sternal, a business coach for Mountain BizWorks. “If you’re not on your A game, the gal who opens on the other side of you or the guy across the street may get the jump,” he says.

Test cases

Sternal, Reedy and McKeown offer several examples of what works and what doesn’t.

One of Asheville’s most established food-product companies — Lusty Monk mustard — started in Kelly Davis’ home kitchen, he says, with a great concept and “simple branding, with tons of room for growth.” Years later, after graduating from Advantage West’s ScaleUp growth-strategy program, Davis has a professional kitchen and national distribution.

He suggests food entrepreneurs test their ideas and products at local tailgate markets, where they’ll get feedback from more than just friends and family. “And if you want to be a success, you better know your cost [and] how much you’ve got sell to cover those costs,” says Reedy.

Before you can get a product to market, you’ve also got to address a host of compliance requirements, from food safety to basic production needs, says Reedy. Blue Ridge Food Ventures “is here to help with that,” he says.

McKeown mentions two new businesses that seem ready for success: Tacoed Wheel and Blue Dream Curry House. The first has a unique idea — get your bike fixed for the trail or race while you enjoy a taco. The latter has assembled a team of co-owners whose skills complement each other — a chef, a manager and a computer whiz.

“You can be a solo musician and write songs, but there comes a time when you need a band and producers, studios, record labels,” says Chris Cunningham, who co-owns Blue Dream with “bandmates” Sean Park (the cook) and James Sutherland (the computer whiz).

This band of food brothers met while working for other restaurants but long harbored the desire to set out on their own. They took their time, says Sutherland. “We spent a year meeting at Waffle House [after hours],” he jokes.

They did their research, worked the numbers and fleshed out the concept. “If you focus on one thing, you can make it really great,” says Park. He focused on the food. Sutherland looked at the technical side as if they were producing a beta version of a new software product. “Everyone focused on their strengths,” says Park.

The Tacoed Wheel, meanwhile, required “a lot of patience” to get up and running, says co-owner and marketing manager Michael Hakala. “Figuring out all the permitting and license requirements is enough to make someone go cross-eyed,” he jokes.

Hakala and partner Greg Clemmer (a bike-repair guru who used to work for Carolina Fatz) put together a business plan and laid out the steps for success. First, they launched the mobile repair part of the business. Later this summer, they hope to get the taco trailer fully functional, and for that component, they needed money. “Capital is one of the major hurdles we’ve had to overcome,” says Hakala. With a Mountain BizWorks loan, their next goal is finding a sponsor kitchen, then in 10 years, their own “brick-and-mortar establishment down the road.”

Magic bullets

Do these new businesses have what it takes?

Sternal says time will tell. He notes his own path in the food industry evolved from working for restaurants to getting married and having kids, then seeking other ways to stay in the business. Those ways now include helping new and established businesses as well as being involved with groups like the Asheville Independent Restaurants association.

There are so many different approaches to the food business in Asheville, he says. Take, for example, Roots hummus, which has done well by market testing its products and adapting to what sells. Then there’s The Hop, which started selling its ice cream at a small shop but now has a production facility in West Asheville. And there’s Gypsy Queen, which Suzy Phillips opened as a food truck a few years ago but is now seeking to expand into a brick-and-mortar location.

There are those who don’t make it out of the gate, have to take longer to make their dream come true or later decide to throw in the towel, too. McKeown notes an entrepreneur who thought to get a head start by buying equipment early, but when he found the right space for his venture, some of the equipment wasn’t the right size or type for the space.

“There’s no one single magic bullet [for success],” says Sternal. “You need to have lots of magic bullets.”

MORE INFO

Mountain BizWorks: mountainbizworks.org

Blue Ridge Food Ventures: http://avl.mx/18e

ScaleUp WNC: http://avl.mx/18f

 

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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4 thoughts on “Making it: What works (and doesn’t) for Asheville food businesses

  1. Nate

    Interesting article, with some good info. It would have been interesting to hear some negative examples as well, especially insights from the actual participants about what went wrong rather than speculators and outside sources. There have been so many tailgate sellers that only last a year or two in this town, or restaurants that close before they’ve been open a full year. I’d also love to hear some analysis of what went wrong with high-profile, high end retail establishments like Katuah Market and Dough, both of which closed in less than two years after VERY high profile launches and significant investment.

  2. Margaret Williams

    Thanks, Nate, for the suggestion. I’m interested in exploring that side of the story, too.

  3. Margaret, thanks for the awesome write up. Not to sound ungrateful and nothing against Glen, but I answer better to Greg.

    • Margaret Williams

      Thanks for the correction. Sorry we missed that, Greg.

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