Tucked away in the corner of A-B Tech’s Enka campus, budding local businesses like Buchi Kombucha and Lusty Monk Mustard have had the opportunity to grow their roots in an 11,000-square-foot, FDA-inspected, shared-use facility called Blue Ridge Food Ventures. Success for this organization doesn’t come from keeping clients, but from watching them leave.
“It’s the lowest-cost way to get into the food business — to manufacture a professional food product — without taking on $50,000 worth of debt to convert your basement into an FDA-approved kitchen,” says Executive Director Smithson Mills, who notes that Buchi and Lusty Monk were both previous clients that have since moved on. “Basically, it’s a food-business incubator. We have a lot of businesses that started here and have graduated on. Others have been here for a few years and are starting to plan on establishing their own facilities.”
The organization, now in its second decade of operation, underwent major management changes in 2015. Originally founded as a subsidiary of AdvantageWest, a nonprofit funded by the state legislature, BRFV was in danger of closing due to the dissolution of the economic development group.
Last year, WNC Communities, a local nonprofit with a mission of supporting agriculture, responded to calls for help and took the project under its wing. The organization’s calling, though, remains unchanged. “The shared-use service that is here will continue, and the core mission has not deviated from the original goals of the program,” says Mills.
That core mission is to provide the tools necessary to start a food business in Western North Carolina, including equipment for preparation, storage, cooking, processing and packaging, along with technical assistance. Mills says BRFV is “on the advanced end of the spectrum of shared-use facilities.”
Once properly trained, clients have 24/7 access to the facility, which features a 350-square-foot bottling room for beverages, cosmetics and herbal products; a 200-square-foot multipurpose room, often used for dehydrating, grinding and labeling; and two 900-square-foot kitchens outfitted with such equipment as convection ovens, a tilt skillet, a combi-steam oven and an all-fill machine.
“We provide services to about 80-90 businesses on an annual basis,” he says, noting that some clients travel as far as 75 miles to use the facility.
Diverse clients with different needs
BRFV’s client base includes entrepreneurs who store product in the coolers and use the facility on a regular basis, farmers who wash and process produce during harvest season, and wedding and event caterers who are a common sight during spring and fall but are rarely seen during winter months. All clients use the space on a pay-by-the-hour basis.
Tonya Bennert, chief chocolatier of UliMana, says the service BRFV provides is worth the hourly charge.
“When you operate a small food business, you’re always learning, and BRFV has proven to be an amazing resource for us,” says Bennert. “They help with the latest rules and regulations for food products, provide equipment to help us streamline our process and have knowledgeable staff to give advice. We wouldn’t be here without them.”
To keep the hourly rate affordable for clients, BRFV relied heavily on state funding and grants to break even during its first 10 years. This year, in an effort to become more self-sufficient, the facility began offering a new service: co-packing.
“We contract manufacture for people who would like to have a product made on their behalf,” Mill says. Because finished products can be shipped, co-packing customers can use BRFV’s service from anywhere in the country, he adds. “We’re doing co-packing to make up what we lose over shared-use clients. I think that proves that, as a business model, to make a lot of money, this isn’t going to work here. But we do incubate these small businesses.”
BRFV and its partners also help get entrepreneurial clients in front of paying customers during the annual holiday market held in December. Last year, Ingles joined in the effort, helping advertise the one-day market.
“They really promoted the holiday marketplace in a big way, and we had a hugely successful time,” he says, recalling nearly $15,000 in sales generated among approximately 30 vendors.
The future of BRFV, according to Mills, includes an enhanced capacity for packaging and manufacturing food products, serving both shared-use clients and co-packing needs.
“We are always trying to grow our client base, because our clients always graduate. This is what we learned after 10 years,” Mills says. Once entrepreneurs secure a steady flow of cash, they typically exercise their ability to get a bank loan and open their own facility. “We always lose our biggest customers. That’s just part of being an incubator.”
For more information, visit www.blueridgefoodventures.org.