The inspiration for a new food business can come from anywhere — friends who love your cooking or a family-favorite treat. But for the insight and tools to get the idea to market, entrepreneurs in Asheville turn to Blue Ridge Food Ventures.
Tom Gallo has a big dream — one that he and his wife, Susan Devitt, fit into a small cardboard box called the Pizza Kit.
“I’ve been making pizzas for almost as long as I’ve been eating them,” says Gallo, 50. Until recently, he prepared them only for family and friends, and he expected it to stay that way, no matter how people raved about them. When a neighbor urged the couple to open a restaurant, they laughed off the notion.
Then 2008 hit. Gallo was laid off from his job as a ceramic engineer, and Devitt lost much of her work as a graphic designer for a lighting company. “We both thought, ‘We have to come up with something or leave,’” Devitt remembers. “But we love Asheville and decided we had to find a way to stay.”
They found Blue Ridge Food Ventures.
More than a kitchen
Devitt stands in front of a scale in one of Blue Ridge Food Ventures’ kitchens, located on the Enka campus of Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, and shakes a mix of whole-wheat flour, salt, sugar, and yeast into a stainless-steel bowl. She and two assistants, clad in white chef’s suits, are perched around a table in the middle of a cavernous workspace filled with sinks, coolers, ovens, and appliances. As the flour cloud settles, Devitt surveys the product then prepares for the next step — gently scooping the mixture into hundreds of plastic bags, which she and her helpers will then close with a commercial vacuum sealer. “This part of the process is still a little slow for us,” Devitt says, as white dust settles onto her uniform.
Mixing and weighing the dough’s dry ingredients is just one part of the prep that goes into the Pizza Kit, Gallo and Devitt’s $8 brainchild that includes most of the ingredients, all of them organic, for two homemade pizzas. Next week, the couple will return to the kitchen, where they’ll pour ingredients into an 80-gallon kettle to make Gallo’s signature pizza sauce (a twist on his grandmother’s secret recipe).
Back at home, in a room stacked with boxes and labels, the couple assembles the kits, which they then sell online through their business, GalloLea Organics, and at local grocery stores and tailgate markets.
Without Blue Ridge Food Ventures, created in 2005 by the economic development organization AdvantageWest, Gallo and Devitt are not sure they would have had the gumption to launch their pizza enterprise. “When you first get started with something like making your own product, it feels like it’s too daunting,” Devitt says.
Any business start-up is hard, but food ventures come with their own set of challenges. First, there are the state and federal regulations. Then you face the expense of equipment and tools. And that’s before you even get to marketing a product.
“A kitchen alone is not enough to help a new business get going,” says Mary Lou Surgi, executive director of the food business incubator, the first in the state. “People freak out when they see all the laws they have to follow. But we’re here to say, ‘It’ll be OK. We’ve done this for 160 businesses. It’s not that hard. You can do it, and we’ll help you through it.’ ”
Many people hoping to start a food venture are coming from another career, Surgi says. They may know their food, but running a business is unfamiliar territory.
In 2005, Theresa Green switched from massage therapy to making and selling chocolate. At Blue Ridge Food Ventures, she took classes, got help writing a business plan, reserved time in the state-certified kitchen, and leapt into pioneering a line of raw, organic chocolate truffles called UliMana that she now sells in about 100 stores throughout the country.
“You gain so many leadership skills and become a master problem-solver,” Green says. “It brings a tremendous feeling of personal growth.”
From idea to marketplace
Each month, 20 to 30 food entrepreneurs regularly rent space, at $22 an hour ($12 for small farmers), in the food ventures’ kitchens. They make a variety of products; some mouthwatering, some quirky. Leslie Suber makes and freezes the crab cakes for her company, Sadie’s Caribbean Fish Cakes. Brian Moe, owner of Viable Cultures, ferments his organic sauerkraut, tempeh, and kombucha. And Eddie Schoeffmann just started baking authentic Bavarian pretzels through his business, Beulah’s Pretzels. Surgi says they’re great paired with BRFV graduate Lusty Monk Mustards.
The 11,000-square-foot facility with two main kitchens, freezers, coolers, and prep areas, as well as storage, is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Users take advantage of the space as much as they need.
Gallo and Devitt spend one full day a week in the kitchen. Stan Nikolski comes in most days. He stores his food cart here, along with his inventory of hot dogs, veggie-dogs, and ingredients for lemonade. Nikolski left his job in a Fletcher shipping center four years ago to start Uptown a la Cart, a portable hot dog vending business he operates primarily in Asheville. He uses the food ventures’ kitchens to do his prep work. “I can come or go anytime I want,” he says, “which is especially great if I want to serve late, like during the summer drum circles in Pritchard (Park).”
Everything an individual or group needs to transform an idea into a business is available at Blue Ridge Food Ventures. Carla Fay Squires, who sells her Bamboo Lady pickles throughout the state, started by taking classes in pickling here. She continues to travel from her Raleigh home to the community kitchen each spring to cook and hand-pack her bamboo pickles, a popular product getting national attention. In October, Cooking Light magazine singled out the pickles for a Taste Test award.
People also get help with financing, learning to manage their books, and packaging, as well as with marketing and product distribution — whatever it takes to get an idea from the drawing board into consumers’ hands.
“If we just offered the kitchens and not that assistance,” Surgi says, “I think a lot of (our clients) would run away screaming.”
Gallo and Devitt know that small-scale food entrepreneurs face long odds. They’ve got a devoted following at the grocery stores that stock their kits — they’ve won over many customers with frequent in-store demos. But the business is still in the start-up phase and has a ways to go before it provides them a comfortable living. “We need to sell a lot more to make money at this,” Gallo says.
With Blue Ridge Food Ventures’ support, however, Gallo and Devitt are confident in the steps they’re taking toward their goal. They’ve started pitching their product as an ideal gift and also as a perfect fund-raising product. And they’re diversifying their line, experimenting with a gluten-free version and a dessert pizza kit.
They step up to challenges, confident they’ll find at Blue Ridge Food Ventures the space and the know-how they need to keep moving forward.
“Here, we learned what we needed to do,” Devitt says, “and that it’s really just a matter of doing one thing at a time.”
Blue Ridge Food Ventures started a statewide trend. Since 2005, five additional shared-use kitchens have sprung up across North Carolina, and at least one more is on the way. Farmers and food entrepreneurs can find assistance and work space at the following locations:
Anson Community Kitchen
A 900-square-foot, commercial-quality kitchen for caterers, farmers, and food entrepreneurs, the kitchen is located at South Piedmont Community College’s Lockhart-Taylor Center.
Eastern Carolina Food Ventures Incubator Kitchen
This venture is a collaboration between James Sprunt Community College and Duplin and Pender counties.
Madison Farms Value-Added Center
Operated by the Madison County Cooperative Extension Office, the center provides local growers a place to wash, sort, process, and package produce on a large scale.
Piedmont Food and Agricultural Processing Center
A joint effort by Alamance, Chatham, Durham, and Orange counties, this Hillsborough facility is slated to open in March 2011.
Rockingham Community Kitchen
Madison and Wentworth
Made up of two separate, sizable shared-use kitchens, this food incubator is run in part by the Rockingham County Cooperative Extension, with the county’s Business and Technology Center providing training and consulting for budding producers.
Stecoah Valley Cultural Arts Center Kitchen
Part of a multipurpose community center in Robbinsville, this renovated former school cafeteria is now home to caterers, cooks, and classes. An added bonus: The center has adjoining meeting and banquet space, making it an ideal place to showcase local culinary creations.
Jon Elliston is a freelance writer who lives in Asheville. He is coauthor with Kent Priestley of North Carolina Curiosities.