A Nigerian-inspired tomato sauce. A baker returning to her small-town roots. A hot sauce created by circus artists. A food service serving meals on wheels to the elderly. A pop-up caterer who found refuge during Covid-19.
These are just a few of the businesses launched through Mountain Harvest Kitchen (MHK), a rural, state-of-the-art, 4,000-square-foot food incubator nestled in Blue Ridge Mountains of Northeast Tennessee. The kitchen is a rare find for any region, but in tiny towns like Unicoi where jobs are scarce, it’s a much-treasured opportunity.
I first discovered this kitchen a year after its 2017 grand opening. It’s located in a town of 3,600 and a county with about 18,000 residents. But it rivaled incubator kitchens I’d seen in Portland, Oregon. Bright stainless-steel workstations filled the center of the room. Commercial-grade ovens lined the rear. The smell of baked goods filled the air.
During that initial tour, I sat down with Unicoi’s then-mayor, Johnny Lynch. After a decade of building collaborations and securing funding with regional, state, and federal funding, his dream of providing an economic engine for food entrepreneurs in a struggling region had come to fruition. The grants stipulated that the kitchen would support farmers and food product entrepreneurs in seven counties for 20 years within a 50-mile radius that includes Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia.
Last month, I returned to check on the kitchen’s progress. and report back to numerous rural communities who’ve expressed interest in having a community kitchen/incubator in their region. Over the past four years, MHK launched 40 new businesses, creating over 100 new jobs.
Helen Okpokowuruk launched her Royal Red Stews the week before Covid struck. Today, her product is sold in 17 states. She credits the kitchen’s strict safety protocols, which allowed continued use of the facility throughout the pandemic. Baker Maren Close, founder of Lazy Lady Baking Co., now has her pastries in multiple cafes and will be opening a brick-and-mortar bakery this spring. Ajay Koleth’s Fit Clean Meals has exceeded expectations since Covid’s shutdown. When food access for seniors tumbled, he began serving the elderly meals on wheels. In the past year and a half, working two to three days a week, he’s served nearly 200,000 meals.
Jessica Cabrera of American Farm Bureau Federation applauds the kitchen. “Their commitment to slowing down long enough to invest in the business owners as people and leaders is impressive,” she said. “Entrepreneurs in rural communities struggle with access to capital, rural broadband, infrastructure to process and transport goods, access to labor, market outlets, etc. It is truly an uphill battle, so innovative initiatives like this one open doors to opportunity that wouldn’t exist otherwise.”
Bolstered by the news of MHK’s successes I visited Lynch, who’d recently lost his mayoral position, at his buffalo farm. “Carolyn, I’ve got some hard news,” he said. “Just last night, the new mayor put the kitchen on the chopping block. She’s trying to lease it to the local technical college’s culinary program … for a dollar a year. A dollar a year! And the college won’t be liable for anything. Our food businesses won’t have a place to cook. It breaks my heart.”
My heart sank a bit.
Was MHK plight similar to other incubators? I reached out to the kitchen incubator industry, calling kitchens and consultants in both rural and urban kitchens from South Carolina to Maine, to learn if what happened to MHK was common.
Bailey Foster, Knoxville’s Real Good Kitchen founder, shared the U.S. kitchens incubators and industry 2020 update. According to the report, 21% of rural communities had an incubator; many, like Unicoi’s, near small towns or urban centers.
Cost heavy, with little profit, the challenge for all incubators is designing sustainable business models. As many move from for-profit to not-for-profit to garner better funding, others seek to strengthen community engagement to elevate the incubator’s perceived value within its region. Unicoi is one of the few kitchens tied directly to city funding, creating a particularly precarious position.
Unicoi Alderman Wanda Radford voted against the mayor’s lease proposal. “When I looked at the lease, I didn’t see protection for our town,” she said. “The kitchen is not having the revenue we expected. It needs to change. But we also need to protect our town’s interests. My hope is to find a solution that satisfies everyone.”
Lee Manning, MHK’s executive director, also hopes for an equitable solution. “It’s a pretty progressive approach for local government leadership to support a kitchen like MHK. It could be great to have an anchor tenant like a culinary group,” she said.
“Do I want them to supersede entrepreneurs? No. Do I want them to take priority over the businesses? No. But I think there’s a way we can work together. The initial grant was written stipulating its use for entrepreneurial development. With the city administration and priorities shifting, that specific language is what’s kept us going. If that language hadn’t been there, because of the way that politics are, the kitchen might not be here today.”
Eric Hallman, consultant and executive director for Piedmont Food Processing Center, spoke to the challenges of city-run incubator kitchens. “There’s a lot of management of the political forces that come sweeping through,” he said. “The challenge is educating our elected officials on the value of entrepreneurship across the board. Even through entrepreneurs are leading the recovery by creating new businesses, sadly, our elected officials don’t understand because their economic development people are old-school. Nobody’s supporting the entrepreneurs. That’s exactly what incubators are there to do.”
As Unicoi continues its debate, Ajay from Clean Fit Food asserts says there’s a lot at stake. , “We’ve got to take care of all of our community, not just political interests,” he said. “That’s what Mountain Harvest Kitchen is here to do.”
Lynch, the former mayor, says he’s learned an important lesson. “You can never have too much community engagement.,” he said. “They need to see the value of the kitchen. Otherwise, when political winds shift, the kitchen is the first on the chopping block.”