When a group of AdvantageWest economic developers and agribusiness consultants came up with the idea to create a food business incubator in the region, such a concept was relatively new. It was more than a decade ago, and only a handful existed across the country — and none in North Carolina.
At the Blue Ridge Food Ventures shared-use commercial kitchens, located in leased space on the A-B Tech Enka campus, farmers would have a place to make value-added products. That is, in addition to selling fresh tomatoes or berries at a tailgate market, they could also create products with a longer shelf life, such as hot sauces and jams.
With the equipment and resources needed to make and market products, the facility would be another addition to AdvantageWest’s job creation initiatives. Experts would help with food safety regulations, packaging and marketing.
Back then, no one could have imagined that Blue Ridge Food Ventures would become one of the best-known facilities of its type in the country or remain the largest in the Southeast to this day. Since its official opening in 2005, Blue Ridge Food Ventures has helped launch more than 250 small businesses. Nearly 100 currently operate out of the facility on regular or seasonal schedules each year. On average, 70 jobs are supported through the productions at the facility.
Blue Ridge Food Ventures is used by an array of artisan food entrepreneurs, chefs, bakers, caterers, mobile and food cart operators — and a farmer or two — producing $1.5 million of goods annually. Products range from hot sauces, chocolate truffles, nut butters, seasoning mixes, salad dressing, bagels and jams to tempeh, kombucha, chutney, soda syrups, energy bars, vegetable protein (“wheat meat”), gelato and more. Many of these products can be found in retail outlets across the country.
In addition, BRFV also offers co-packing services — that is, contract manufacturing — and operates an offseason community supported agriculture program that distributes locally grown produce during the winter months, providing subscribers with fruit and veggies purchased from local farms during the growing season.
Blue Ridge Food Ventures now boasts the only shared-use, Good Manufacuring Practices-compliant natural products manufacturing facility in the U.S., allowing entrepreneurs to produce, for example, medicinal herbs, dietary supplements, natural cosmetics, extracts and tinctures. One product made from locally grown goldenseal was manufactured at BRFV for use in drug trials conducted by the National Institutes of Health.
In other words, Blue Ridge Food Ventures has far exceeded expectations.
But there’s more to consider than just the facility’s contributions to the local economy, says BRFV Executive Director Chris Reedy. “We add diversity to the food system. You can go to any tailgate market in any town and buy a fresh tomato. But there are few towns where you can find a restaurant that serves not just local meats and produce and locally brewed beer, but also locally produced ingredients, such as hot sauces, mustards and tempeh. Because of Blue Ridge Food Ventures, there’s an added dimension to the food system. Even larger cities and food destinations such as Charleston don’t have the diversity of products that we have.
“We are grateful to the visionaries who created Blue Ridge Food Ventures,” continues Reedy. “As important, we deeply appreciate the continued support of the WNC community. Our work in helping entrepreneurs add to the vibrant local food economy would not be possible without your help.”