Healthy change: West Asheville’s developing wellness corridor

NAMASTE NEARBY: West Asheville's growing cluster of businesses focused on wellness and health — as well as its “funk and charm” — led Letitia Walker to launch Purna Yoga 828 on Haywood Road in November 2017. Shown here is the studio’s “Great Wall of Yoga.” Photo by Paola Nazati

The big window in the Center for Holistic Medicine on the second floor of the Bledsoe Building frames an aerial view of the corner of Sand Hill Road and Haywood Road. The streetscape, says center founder Nancy Hyton, has changed dramatically since she ran a group practice downstairs in what is now Westville Pub’s Triple 7 Brewhouse. Eleven years ago, a homeless man had taken to sleeping in the men’s room of what was then a brake shop. “The area in front of the building was cracked concrete, littered with bottles and broken glass,” Hyton recalls. “The back of the building had trash and boxes piled up. The bathroom had an exterior door, and every morning the man would stumble out, sit on the curb and smoke his first cigarette of the day.”

Today, Universal Joint — a family-friendly neighborhood pub — straddles that corner. Its white brick façade, bright blue roof, cheery red umbrellas on the clean, canine-welcoming patio adorned with trees, shrubbery and swaths of grass bear little resemblance to that dilapidated brake shop. “Anytime we can create green space, that’s a healthy change,” says Hyton.

Beyond that, however, “healthy change” could be a branding opportunity for the commercial artery that traverses West Asheville and one that neatly taps into the city’s history. “Tourism in Asheville these days has a lot to do with beer,” says Andrew Snavely, who with his wife, Lyndsey Thomas, co-owns Dobra Tea’s downtown and West Asheville locations. “But back in the early 20th century, people came to Asheville for healing, for the water, the mountains, the springs, the spas. I’d like to see a return to that. I think West Asheville has a lot of businesses devoted to wellness and healing, and I’d like that to be a draw to the neighborhood.”

Bend and sip

In the past five years, Haywood Road has seen a wave of new businesses promoting health and wellness in various ways. From pioneers like West Asheville Yoga and the Center for Holistic Medicine to newbies like Asheville Dispensary and the Simple Café & Juice Bar, they are consciously seeking to strike the tricky balance of respecting and accommodating neighborhood residents, courting clients and customers from other parts of town and attracting a portion of the tourist trade — all without compromising the community’s intimate feel.

West Asheville Yoga opened 12 years ago and still retains many of the original teachers and students. In January, founder Cat Matlock sold the business to fellow teacher and studio manager Sue Ann Fisher. “Cat and I had been talking about it for a while, and we agreed it was time to give the studio a new life,” says Fisher. “This place has a special place in the community, so I feel honored she believed in me to keep it running.”

Most students, notes Fisher, live in and around the neighborhood and walk or bike to classes. But she’s noticed a bump in visitors from other parts of town and even points beyond. “We introduced online registration in January and have seen people who are visiting Asheville signing up for a class. Asheville is known for yoga generally, and when people who practice come here, they want to take a class. Some of our teachers have an internet presence, and with our online registration, they can actually take a class in person with that teacher.”

The newly painted, cornflower blue stucco building that’s home to the Simple Café & Juice Bar can be seen from West Asheville Yoga’s storefront window. Since opening last August, the café has become a before- or after-class stop for students and teachers, as well as neighbors and fans of co-owner Suzy Phillips, whose popular Gypsy Queen restaurant sits less than a mile away on Patton Avenue.

“This space had been a few things, but it was frequently unoccupied,” says Phillips, sitting in the cozy, light-filled main room. She and business partner Nate Kelly, she says, “were attracted to this neighborhood: There is such a good feel to it. The kitchen has no gas, so it’s challenging. But I love juices, salads, sandwiches. We can focus on healthy and keep it simple. The name, Simple, describes who we are and what we do: simple ingredients, simple good food. We have lots of neighborhood business, and because a lot of what we do is vegan, we have people from other areas who are looking for that but might be avoiding downtown.”

West Asheville business owners aren’t throwing shade on downtown or the ever-growing numbers of tourists crowding its streets and filling its restaurants, but they do cite increased pedestrian and vehicle traffic there, along with rising rents, as reasons they opted to look elsewhere.

Brain break

From the vestibule at 707 Haywood Road, open the door on the left and descend the stairs to the subterranean sanctuary of the Asheville School of Massage & Yoga. Shala Worsley came to Asheville in 1996 armed with a degree in anthropology and the desire to take, as she called it, a “brain break.” She did that via massage school, fell in love with the town, enrolled in a yoga teacher training program and, in 2005, opened her business downtown.

The school — which offers certifications for massage therapists and ayurveda wellness counselors, both of which integrate yoga as a form of self-care — proved so successful that it outgrew its original space. “We looked all over for a really long time,” says Worsley. “My friend and architect, Maria Rusafova, lives in West Asheville, and we came to see this space. It was bad. A dirt floor, mud, crusty brick walls. We had to climb down a ladder! But she saw the classroom, the treatment rooms, the back courtyard. She had the vision; I didn’t.

“What I did love was that West Asheville felt to me like the old downtown, which I missed. I love the neighborhood feel, the locals, knowing other business owners on the street. For what we do, something quieter and calmer suits us. West Asheville felt like the right speed for us.”

She signed the lease in spring 2015. Renovations started immediately and the business moved in September, without missing a single day of class. “What I didn’t anticipate was how much we would grow once we had more room, or how many like-minded businesses would come over here to West Asheville.”

Worsley had a direct hand in persuading one of those businesses to become her neighbor. In the 707 vestibule, the door on the right leads to Dobra Tea’s West Asheville outpost, which Snavely and Thomas opened in the summer of 2015. “To me, Lexington is the heart of downtown, the funkiest, hippest, rawest street, with kind of a network of local businesses that work well together,” Snavely explains. “But downtown has become increasingly crowded and increasingly a tourist destination. We wanted to open a second location, and we looked specifically at West Asheville. We loved the feeling of old Asheville. I’m good friends with Shala, and when the space next to her became available, she gave me the landlord’s number.”

Dobra’s Haywood location offers the same global tea repertoire but with a much larger food menu. “We were the first to bring 100 percent gluten-free and vegetarian to Haywood,” says Snavely. “We wanted this place to be different than downtown. We want people to take time. Tea takes time to prepare; the high quality of organic food takes time to prepare. This place is a refuge.”

Worsley welcomed her friend and his business, both personally and professionally. “We needed a healthy student cafeteria!” she says with a laugh, adding, “We are thrilled with BimBeriBon, too.”

Something that matters

Reza Setayesh’s reputation as a consciousness-raising, environmentally responsible, healthy-eating guru, chef and restaurateur who simultaneously creates delectable food had preceded him. He opened his first Asheville restaurant, Rezaz, in Biltmore Village in 2002 but sold it in 2015, looking to launch a new chapter in his life.

“When I decided to do a new place, the ideology was to do something that matters,” he explains during a lull between lunch and dinner at BimBeriBon. The all-day, fast-casual eatery opened up two doors down from Dobra in September 2017. “I wanted to make sure that what we do here not only pleases your palate but that your body benefits from the nutrients in the food. We are 100 percent gluten-free, 100 percent refined cane sugar-free and nutrient-dense. We want to be a respite from ingredients that can trigger and contribute to many health problems. We use nothing with preservatives; we make everything in-house. Our menu is real feel-good food that is good while you’re eating it and feels good after.”

When Setayesh was seeking a space for his new restaurant, he says he was open to any part of town but found the perfect match in West Asheville. “This neighborhood is dynamic, eclectic, racially and socioeconomically diverse,” he notes. “It has all ages, it’s walkable and values a healthy lifestyle.”

Total nourishment

It was Setayesh’s staking a claim at one end of the little strip mall next door to Ingles that persuaded Letitia Walker to open Purna Yoga 828 at the other end.

“I’ve been teaching yoga since 2004, in a studio in east West Asheville and other places downtown,” she explains. “The studio was going to be torn down, so in mid-2017, I started looking for a place for my own studio. I wasn’t sure about this plaza; it still seemed kind of sketchy. But I heard Reza was going into the space at the end and I said, ‘If Reza is in, we’re in.’ If you pay attention to food, you know who he is and how he thinks about food and nourishment. BimBeriBon seemed like such a lovely complement to our vision.”

Purna, which means whole or complete in Sanskrit, is the style of yoga taught there. One of six Purna studios in the country, it is alignment-focused and relies heavily on props, including a unique “Great Yoga Wall.”

“I’ve lived in West Asheville for 21 years and didn’t want to be anywhere but here,” says Walker. “It still has the funk and charm that drew me here and is not overly saturated with yoga studios, though we are happy to welcome all practitioners of health and wellness to this area.”

Alternative spaces

That includes the newest member of West Asheville’s wellness community, Asheville Dispensary, which sits at the far end of Haywood on the ground floor of the Haywood Village condos. Having been in real estate for 12 years, Jimmy Gallagher is quite familiar with the adage “location, location, location.” And when he was honing his concept for the dispensary, he knew where he wanted to be. “West Asheville has a very conscious feel of wellness to it. I believed our concept would be well-received here, and the space is perfect for everything we do.”

The retail component offers assorted CBD products; the bar serves up CBD tinctures, coffees and teas. And, thanks to a partnership with Jill TrAshley, founder of The NOHM Project, there’s also a selection of nonalcoholic cocktail elixirs such as Plant Pop and Goji Okay.

All this is presented in a relaxed, welcoming atmosphere. The sofas, chairs and tables invite customers to stake out a place, either solo or with friends, or to attend events such as Afro dance classes and CanaComedy night. As of March 15, says Gallagher, the dispensary moved its opening time to 8 a.m., offering its full menu of espresso drinks and NOHM Project elixirs.

In the meantime, the nightly 5:30-7 happy hour is popular with neighbors, and when the weather warms, he’ll place café tables on the sidewalk. “In the growing health and wellness community,” says Gallagher, “we are creating an alternative space for people who want to gather but don’t want it to be around alcohol. You can meet your friends here and have an elixir that does nice things for you in a healthy manner.”

Parking pressures

Even healthy growth poses challenges, however, including a shortage of places to park. “West Asheville is a small neighborhood,” Worsley points out. “Haywood is a destination street with residents on the side streets. We ask our students to be respectful of the residents and don’t park in front of their houses or across their driveways. Neighborhood parking should be reserved for people who live there. But it’s a challenge as more businesses open. We’d like to see City Council work with us to find a solution — a parking garage or a community parking lot.”

Others say they’d like to see more green space, perhaps incorporated into a West Asheville welcome center with parking, merchant directories and public restrooms.

“This is increasingly a wellness corridor,” says Setayesh. Local entrepreneurs, he notes, “have invested in businesses that promote a lifestyle and environment that includes the whole being, whether it’s acupuncture, massage, food, yoga. This is a neighborhood that helps people move, make healthy choices and thrive.”

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About Kay West
Kay West was a freelance journalist in Nashville for more than 30 years, contributing writer for the Nashville Scene, StyleBlueprint Nashville, Nashville correspondent for People magazine, author of five books and mother of two happily launched grown-up kids. To kick off 2019 she put Tennessee in her rear view mirror, drove into the mountains of WNC, settled in West Asheville and appreciates that writing offers the opportunity to explore and learn her new home. She looks forward to hiking trails, biking greenways, canoeing rivers, sampling local beer and cheering the Asheville Tourists.

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