Biz: Nuts to you

For many of Sakshi Gantenbein‘s customers, the smell is what hooks them.

The beguiling aroma—subtle yet savory, not to mention comforting—comes from roasted chestnuts, which Gantenbein cooks up in his portable roasting stand. In the winter months, he’s typically on hand at the entrance to Greenlife Grocery in Asheville, Wednesday through Sunday from noon to 6 p.m.

“Nobody can tell me money doesn’t smell sweet,” he says, laughing about his profitable seasonal enterprise.

But besides the olfactory response from hungry patrons, notes Gantenbein, his product also often stirs up feelings of nostalgia. For some, it evokes Nat King Cole’s version of “The Christmas Song”; others recall roasted chestnuts as a winter ritual from their youth.

“We have lots of New Yorkers here now, and they all come and say, ‘Oh, this reminds me of when I was a kid,’” he relates. “It’s an old tradition there.” But if Gantenbein’s clientele runs the gamut, he says his chestnuts are particularly popular with foreigners—especially Europeans familiar with chestnut vendors from their home country.

The Swiss-born Gantenbein—a jeweler and engraver by trade who also makes and sells dog collars during the warm months—has lived in Asheville for about 12 years now. He learned chestnut roasting some two decades ago from a Swiss lion tamer who did it to supplement his own income. And for the past eight years, Gantenbein has roasted an average of 25 pounds of raw chestnuts daily in the winter months. He sells a small bag (100 grams) for $3.75 and a large one (200 grams) for $6.50.

Gantenbein uses big, meaty chestnuts imported from Italy. He says he’d like to sell American chestnuts (they’re smaller, sweeter and easy to peel), but for various reasons, it’s just not practical. One key reason is availability.

Once upon a time, huge chestnut trees dominated Appalachia. But beginning about a century ago, the chestnut blight (Cryphonectria parasitica, formerly Endothia parasitica) changed all that, destroying about 4 billion American chestnut trees. Last year, the U.S. imported 4,056 metric tons of European in-shell chestnuts worth $10 million, according to Iowa State University researchers.

The discovery of the chestnut-blight fungus on some Asian chestnut trees planted on Long Island, N.Y., was made public in 1904. Within 40 years the American chestnut population in North America was devastated, according to The American Chestnut Foundation. Today they survive as living stumps, or “stools,” with only a few producing enough shoots to yield seeds shortly before dying. That’s just enough to preserve the genetic material used to engineer hybrid American chestnut trees with the Asian species’ blight immunity. Ongoing efforts seek to eventually repopulate the country with these blight-resistant trees, but the U.S. chestnut industry is still in its infancy, accounting for less than 1 percent of total world production.

But regardless of the chestnuts’ pedigree, the business can be lucrative, notes Gantenbein—especially around the winter holidays. Notwithstanding the money, however, he reckons that the best part of the job is simply interacting with people.

“I have one little girl who is so sweet,” says Gantenbein. “And her mother told me, ‘Every time I drive by here, she’s looking if the chestnut guy is here.’ When I’m here, she comes with big eyes and smiles.”

But while roasted chestnuts can put smiles on people’s faces, Gantenbein maintains that they’re more than just a cold-weather comfort food or seasonal novelty. To him, they are life-giving, nutrient-rich powerhouses.

“[The chestnut] comes at a time when we really need it to make the transition from summer to the winter, where we need all this extra energy,” he explains. “That’s when the chestnuts are here. It’s exactly in this time frame: It’s quite amazing.”

‘Twas the blight before Christmas

The holiday season may be upon us, but there are few glad tidings from the N.C. Employment Security Commission, which reports that the state’s unemployment rate hit 7 percent in October. That compares with a 6.5 percent rate nationally—the highest in 14 years.

Here in the Asheville metro area (Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson and Madison counties), however, the unemployment rate held steady at 5.2 percent in September, the latest local monthly figure available.

Employment in North Carolina did increase by 5,076 workers in October, the commission reports. It was the second consecutive monthly employment increase for the state and third in the last four months. But the number of unemployed workers remains at an all-time high.

“There was a slight increase in unemployment [from 6.9 percent in September], but we are encouraged by the increase in employment for the third time in four months,” said ESC Chairman Harry E. Payne Jr. “Both global and national trends continue to impact the state’s economy and employment picture. The job market throughout the state remains a very competitive one, and we see that in our offices every day.”

Putting its own positive spin on the jobs situation, the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce’s Metro Business Research Center reports that the local employment picture remains bright.

“Total employment in the Asheville metro was up by 1,000 jobs in September 2008 versus one year earlier,” says the center’s Asheville Metro Economy Update, released Nov. 25. The Asheville metro area consists of Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson and Madison counties. “The positive result means Asheville experienced its 55th straight month of record year-over-year growth. Although Asheville’s rate of growth equaled a mild 0.6 percent, it was greater than the state and nation.”

According to the report, the Asheville metro had the lowest unemployment rate among the state’s metro areas in September. State figures, however, show Durham with the lowest rate (5.1 percent) and Asheville tied with Raleigh/Cary for second-lowest.

Meanwhile, the city of Asheville had the fifth-lowest unemployment rate (4.9 percent) among North Carolina’s 20 largest cities and towns, the local report notes.

But while the news sounds good, local job gains were recorded in just four of 11 major business sectors—health services/private education; leisure and hospitality services; professional and business services; and information. Losses were notched in wholesale trade; transportation, warehouse and utilities; finance; government; construction; retail and manufacturing, which alone has lost at least 700 jobs during the past year.

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