Cooper raised his concerns about the town’s commercial kitchen and regional food business incubator at the Dec.18 meeting of the Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen, emphasizing that only three food processors have used of the certified kitchen since the facility opened on Aug. 11.
On Dec. 21, Creative Energy Group, a Johnson City-based public relations firm, issued a press release in which Mountain Harvest Kitchen Director Lee Manning reported that since September, the kitchen has had more than 500 visitors; hosted eight classes attended by more than 100 people, including “budding entrepreneurs”; supported 15 entrepreneurs in their development of food businesses; and assisted in the launch of one new business.
Asked about those numbers on Friday, Cooper continued to maintain that only three food-processing users at the kitchen over a four-month period is concerning and the facility’s rates should be reduced as a incentive to increase its use.
“People are telling me they can’t afford the $80 consultant fee, $200 deposit and $25 (hourly) fee to use it,” Cooper said. “I’m trying to help the kitchen. I’m trying to lower the rates on the cost to use the kitchen.”
On the educational and business development uses of the kitchen cited in the press release, Cooper said he would “wait and see” what information on those uses is included in a financial report to be presented to the Board of Mayor and Aldermen later this month.
Unicoi Mayor Johnny Lynch asked for patience, noting that the kitchen’s development had spanned more than a decade and three different incarnations of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen while its operations are just getting started.
Since its opening, Lynch said the kitchen has hit every benchmark set out in its business plan and is on track to be self-sustaining within three years, as the plan projects.
As a certified processing kitchen and food business incubator serving East Tennessee, Western North Carolina and Southwest Virginia, Lynch said the facility is the only one of its kind within a 50-mile radius and was built as a service to the town and the region that over time will create jobs and stimulate the local economy through the creation of small businesses and jobs.
The press release describes Mountain Harvest as a platform for the town and the region to leverage its agricultural heritage against the fast-growing farm-to-table trend occurring nationwide. “The town and the region’s heritage are built around agriculture. Good examples are that two large farming companies (that) call Unicoi their home, shipping produce to retailers nationwide,” the release states.
Lynch said Unicoi’s farming enterprises are examples of “homegrown agribusiness” that can be replicated “in a jar, a can or as a refrigerated item through our business incubator.”
“The kitchen is about creating jobs and building the economy of Unicoi County and the region,” he said. “We are aggressively marketing Mountain Harvest Kitchen on a daily basis to attract those who are ready to build a business from the ground up. It is a great start for our kitchen and we are gaining more interest on a daily basis.”
The $1.2 million kitchen was built with $900,000 in federal and state grant funding and approximately $300,000 in match funding and in-kind support from the town.
“Any time an entity can raise the capital for a $1.2 million investment by paying roughly 25 percent of the cost, I would consider it a good investment. So did the town’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen who voted unanimously to fund the kitchen.” Lynch said.
More information about upcoming classes at the the kitchen can be found at the town’s website Unicoitn.net or the Mountain Harvest Kitchen page on Facebook. More information about business startup assistance available at the kitchen may be obtained by calling Manning at 423-330-9650.
Email Sue Guinn Legg at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @sueleggjcpress. Like her on Facebook at facebook.com/sueleggjcpress.