By Jake Flannick
They spent countless hours cooking up jams and jellies in their kitchen, filling half-gallon Mason jars they would ferry to eateries and other places in and around Asheville. But as Walter Harrill and his wife, Wendy, started gaining a reputation for their homemade fruit spreads, they found themselves struggling to keep pace with the growing demand.
“We had reached a point where it was no longer sustainable,” Walter Harrill says, noting that at one point they had produced about 10,000 jars in a single year. “You can only replace so many burned-out eyes on your kitchen range.”
So the couple started renting space at a food processing facility southwest of Asheville, churning out the spreads by the bagful. These days, they are leasing another production space, in Haw Creek, shipping pallet-loads to high-end groceries such as Earth Fare and Whole Foods.
The shared facility, Blue Ridge Food Ventures, helped the couple turn their craft into a successful business, Imladris Farm, for which they grow their own fruit on an old family farm southeast of Asheville.
Since opening more than a decade ago in an old textile mill on the Enka campus of the Asheville–Buncombe Technical Community College (A-B Tech), the incubator has attracted many small-scale food producers like the Harrills—bakers, caterers, farmers and food truck operators. Seeking to grow their business, they have access to a wide variety of kitchen equipment and are advised on things like food safety regulations and marketing.
Although such facilities have proliferated across the country since they began emerging in the 1980s, this one is the biggest in the Southeast, says Smithson Mills, its interim executive director. Each year, between 50 and 70 producers spend time in the 11,500-square foot space, including well-known companies like No Evil Foods and Roots Hummus. Altogether, they generate an estimated $3 million in annual revenue.
A multitude of foods have originated here—gelato and organic chocolate, kombucha, tomato and hot sauces, non-meat proteins—along with natural products such as cosmetics. Meat production is limited to caterers, as such foods are inspected by the county government.
On any given day, the facility is abuzz with culinary artisans. There are commercial and convection ovens, dehydrating machines and an automated production line, along with dry storage space and walk-in coolers and freezers for ingredients. “They’re workhorses,” Mills said on a recent tour, referring to a row of 80-gallon steam-jacketed stainless steel kettles.
Blue Ridge Food Ventures opened in 2005 as part of a partnership between A-B Tech, the state Department of Agriculture and an economic development group. The building was once the home of the old American Enka plant, the largest employer in Western North Carolina for a time. It took about three years to turn it into a food processing facility, says Mills, who was involved in the transformation while working for the state agriculture department. The building also includes the college’s Small Business Center and brewery school.
Certified by the US Food and Drug Administration, the incubator has nonprofit status and relies on grants and fees from clientele; it spends no money on advertising or marketing. It has only two salaried employees and eight part-time ones.
Beyond serving as a much-needed workspace, it turns into a market around the holidays, with vendors showcasing their products. This year, the market is scheduled from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on, Saturday, December 3.
Although the facility might not prove advantageous for every entrepreneur, it has helped many gain a foothold in the food-and-beverage world, including the makers of Buchi kombucha.
For the Harrills, the jam and jelly makers who grow their fruits on Walter’s great-grandparents’ farm in Fairview, the five years or so that they spent at the facility were instrumental, helping them firmly establish their business. Last year, Imladris Farm generated about $270,000 in gross income.
Although he doesn’t know exactly how much of their jams and jellies are being made these days, Harrill says half-jokingly, “I know I’m glad I’m not making them anymore.”
Blue Ridge Food Ventures is located at 1461 Sand Hill Road, in Candler. This year’s holiday market will take place from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on, Saturday, December 3. For more information, call Michael McDonald at 828.348.0130 or visit blueridgefoodventures.org.