It’s impossible to walk in downtown Asheville without receiving the message loud and clear: This city supports its local businesses.
Locally based brands like Spicewalla, Roots Hummus and Buchi Kombucha appear regularly on store shelves. Stickers promoting Go Local Asheville (formerly the Asheville Grown Business Alliance), a locally focused economic alliance, adorn window fronts. A boutique on Haywood Street posts a cheeky sign outside its store, warning, “Friends don’t let friends shop at chains.”
Go Local Asheville, the purveyor of the Go Local card that offers discounts at over 550 local businesses, defines a “local” business as one that is independent, not part of a franchise or chain and does not have a corporate headquarters outside North Carolina, says Executive Director Sherree Lucas. Owners with at least a 50% controlling interest must live in Buncombe County or the surrounding counties.
Business owners feel the love. “There is a community of business owners and customers who are all there to cheer you on and spend their hard-earned money with you when they can,” Claire Watson, co-founder of Moonlight Makers, a clothing and housewares shop, tells Xpress.
Adds Ginger Frank, founder of Poppy Hand-crafted Popcorn, which has a production facility in Black Mountain, “The welcome from the locals is so heartwarming. They’re genuinely glad we’re there, and that small-town feeling just can’t be ignored.”
Yet while browsing downtown and elsewhere in the city, one sees evidence of globalization. T-shirts celebrating Asheville, its mountains and its vibes bear a tag reading “Made in Nicaragua.”
At every turn, local entrepreneurs must decide where to source their materials and make their products. Those choices shape what “local business” actually means in Asheville’s economy.
Finding a niche
Western North Carolina hosts a number of large manufacturing plants, including operations for GE, Linamar, Eaton and the recently announced Pratt & Whitney plant. But historically, the area attracted even more production, including large textile factories, metalworking and woodworking facilities — until the 1980s and 1990s, when most of those companies relocated their production to other countries with lower costs and weaker protections for workers and the environment.
“A lot of that work has gone overseas and will likely stay overseas,” explains Sara Chester, co-executive director of The Industrial Commons, a nonprofit that incubates industry cooperatives in WNC. Factories that relocated tend to operate on large-scale runs, sometimes producing 100,000 units at a time.
“You can make a $3.50 T-shirt with overseas production but not with American production, just sheerly because of what they pay overseas compared with what we pay here,” says Chester. For this reason, products made in China — or anywhere where the cost of manufacturing is much cheaper — are ubiquitous throughout the United States.
But the international supply chain can also be responsible for a larger carbon footprint and environmental degradation, she notes. And in some places, producing goods involves forced labor, child workers or other human rights abuses.
Industrial production in WNC is not extinct, Chester continues; it just tends to occur in “smaller batches.” For example, Opportunity Threads, The Industrial Commons’ cooperative cut-and-sew factory based in Burke County, can provide mid- to high-volume production of 3,000 to 25,000 units per style. The smallest runs start at 500 to 1,000 units per style, according to its website.
These locally made products tend to be made of “quality materials,” Chester says. The goods then go to market as “higher-end niche products.”
Asheville-based East Fork Pottery follows such a model, offering wares such as a $38 coffee mug and $46 dinner plate. “We sell a premium product,” says co-founder Alex Matisse. “It’s pretty expensive. And that’s because that’s how much it costs to make the thing and to operate the business in the way we want to do it.”
Chester says that in her personal experience, consumers will accept prices of 3%-5% more for products that are made locally. “Both the consumer and corporations are in a place right now where they’re willing to pay a little bit more if something is environmentally friendly, produced with living wages or produced in a socially responsible way,” she explains.
She hopes that in time, it will “always make sense” for businesses to source their materials and products locally, because the consumer will always be willing to pay a higher price.
“We have zero issues right now, fortunately, selling what we make,” says Matisse.
Go local (if you can)
When local businesses manage to source local materials from other local makers, the raw inputs may have traveled thousands of miles to get here. Frank notes that her popcorn uses chocolate from French Broad Chocolates, cinnamon honey whiskey from Asheville Distilling Co., coffee from Dynamite Roasting Co. and gingerbread from Red Radish.
Local coffee roasters like Dynamite Roasting Co. and Pisgah Coffee Roasters source their beans from faraway countries, such as Ethiopia, Sumatra, Bolivia and Brazil. French Broad Chocolates purchases cacao from Nicaragua, Guatemala, Peru and Costa Rica, although it processes the beans into bonbons at a factory on Riverside Drive in Asheville.
Watson, from Moonlight Makers, says her company’s T-shirts come from a supplier in Indian Trail, near Charlotte, but the company had to look farther afield for another popular item. “We get our dish towels from Turkey and India through a couple of American middlemen, as we haven’t been able to source anywhere locally that can supply 20,000 pieces per month,” she says.
The ability to source materials nearby while meeting consumer demand and growing a business can be difficult — or sometimes impossible. When Matisse co-founded East Fork Pottery with his wife, Connie, in 2010, he mixed the clay himself. The couple fired their pottery in a wood kiln that they and their friends built in a prefab Lowe’s storage shed. But as East Fork Pottery’s business grew, the company upgraded to purchasing clay from a supplier in Seagrove, a town in the North Carolina Piedmont.
“To make what we make, it would be an impossibility to do that from what they call the pipe clay — the local clay you can find around the Asheville area,” Matisse says. “As we’ve grown, we’ve needed to expand. We use an enormous amount of clay.”
As East Fork Pottery expanded its offerings, it searched farther afield to other clay suppliers (and introduced a gas kiln in 2015). Today, the company operates two shops and a ceramics manufacturing studio on Short McDowell Street. It now purchases clay from Highwater Clays in Asheville, which sources components from throughout the Southeast.
Matisse acknowledges that with its components coming from Tennessee and Georgia, the clay is more regional than local. But he says the company is always mindful of the distance that its materials travel.
East Fork Pottery now employs over 100 people and generates over $10 million in annual revenue. And while Matisse and his co-founders have received unsolicited emails about moving their manufacturing operations overseas, he says the company and its investors aren’t interested in that idea.
Another Buncombe County-based company that has found it untenable to keep everything local is No Evil Foods, a vegan protein brand. The company closed its Weaverville production facility in June and moved to a comanufacturing model. The decision “was precipitated by a series of unfortunate and compounding complications,” says co-founder Sadrah Schadel, “which eroded our cash reserves as we struggled to safely keep operations going during the [COVID-19] pandemic.”
On June 7, Schadel says the business learned that “significant infusion of essential capital fell through suddenly.” The company announced the closure of its Weaverville plant on June 11; it is currently in the process of establishing co-production with a partner in Illinois. Although Schadel declined to name the partner, she says it “works with other brands in the plant-based space.”
Sourcing ingredients locally has also been difficult for No Evil Foods. The main protein in its products comes from hard winter wheat, which is sourced from Kansas. So Schadel says the company focuses on “prioritizing local and regional suppliers for other aspects of our supply chain,” such as Asheville-based printers BP Solutions, Hood Containers and Printville for the brand’s cartons, case boxes and coupons.
Work from home
Local businesses arguably foster stronger social connections than chain stores, in part because the business owners tend to be embedded in the community.
Matisse at East Fork Pottery says he worries about people in Asheville who are struggling. “The full spectrum of the community of Asheville is not just tourists and breweries,” he says. In his role as co-founder of a successful business, he says, “What I get excited about is offering job opportunities to people who have lived there their whole life.”
Tom Dempsey, the founder of SylvanSport in Brevard, says he was motivated to engineer and manufacture his main product, the GO camper, at a local factory in order to “do things here and try and solve the problems here, so that future generations have something to work with.” He employs 32 people and he anticipates hiring more.
The GO camper is made of a proprietary aluminum alloy, waterproof and seam-sealed tents and powder-coated finishes. He says 80% of the parts are made within a 100-mile radius of Brevard. Manufacturing locally surprised some of his colleagues in the outdoor gear industry.
“Early in the analysis, when I had a concept and an engineering development work being done, I had businesspeople ask me, ‘Why don’t you have that made in China?’” Dempsey recalls. But by manufacturing in Transylvania County, he says, he’s had an active presence in his two sons’ lives, which would have diminished if he were regularly traveling overseas.
Being a local company, he says, was “a blend of sensible financial decisions, lifestyle decisions and decisions about the quality of life in the community in which you live and how you want it to evolve.”
He adds, “I have zero regrets.”