UNICOI — Lee Manning has been the director of Unicoi’s Mountain Harvest Kitchen for a little more than three years.

Coming to Unicoi from Georgia with a couple of degrees in food science and a background in manufacturing, research and education, it has been her job to establish the kitchen as a regional food business incubator and help the area’s budding entrepreneurs make their culinary visions a reality.

Three years in and Manning is excited about what has been accomplished, particularly the businesses that have gotten off the ground and the jobs those businesses have created. There’s an especially savory quality to her smile when she tells you, “We’re still growing.”

What’s cooking at Mountain Harvest Kitchen these days?

“There are one- to three-kitchen users here six to seven days a week. Some people are here at night because it’s available 24 hours. We have about 23 producers working here and those producers have created about 60 jobs. That’s starting from zero when we opened. We had 15 or 16 at this time last year. So yeah, we’ve been growing. But it’s a wiggly number because our goal is to help them to move on to their own brick and mortar facilities and it’s always in transition.

“It’s been sort of a roller coaster with COVID. We had some businesses that paused when the restaurants shut down. We had a lot of businesses that really had to change what products and services they were selling because needs changed. We had a three-month cost share grant from the (Unicoi County) Joint Economic Development Board and I think that really helped some people get through and they are slowly getting back to where they were.

“Ajay (Koleth, owner of Clean Fit Meals) was selling frozen meals, mostly to people who work who cut back on their spending when COVID hit. Then he got a contract with the Area Agency on Aging and Disability and now he’s producing 1,500 meals a week.

“We had a similar (baked goods) client who was doing a lot of wholesale to coffee shops. Then the shops closed with COVID and she transitioned to delivery to special order clients. She does her baking here.

“It’s been kind of amazing we’ve actually been busier during COVID because our producers have been creative about their operation.”

What’s on the menu going forward?

“There are a couple of new services who worked here before COVID and during COVID they worked with their family members to build out their own facilities.

“Good Batch Mama, that’s a family business owned by Elizabeth Rosenbalm, is building their own facility in Kingsport. Maren Close’s Lazy Lady Baking Company is moving into her mother’s Atelier, a shared workspace for artists in downtown Johnson City. And J. Bake is moving into its own space in Johnson City.

“We helped those restaurants get set up ... I’m looking forward to seeing them in their own brick and mortar spaces. That’s exciting to me.

“We have a new producer that’s manufacturing a sauce here. They’re an African specialty food company that has a pretty exciting story too. They’re available all over the region and in multiple states. Steamin’ Steve’s, they’re a barbecue sauce, spice and rub producer in Knoxville. They are coming over here now. And we have five food trucks using this facility now.”

How do you answer critics who see the kitchen as an unnecessary town expense?

“We have been growing every year. We’re seeing success in what we were meant to accomplish. Ajay is proof of that. His being here boosts our bottom line. But our main purpose is to help. Our core support is providing a facility for people to operate. But we help people in a lot of different ways. It’s not a one size fits all.

“Any investment in Mountain Harvest Kitchen is an investment in economic development. Every business hires its own person and has its own impact on the region. I think creating jobs is a good use of public funds. In April, we had 25 producers with 70 jobs and that’s nearly $1 million in private sector investment.”

Of all the services and all the businesses that have gotten off the ground at Mountain Harvest Kitchen, what are your personal favorites?

“I am most proud of the classes and the entrepreneurial services we offer. I think it’s touched a lot of people. That’s how our African sauce people came in contact with us.

“I’m proud of all our producers. The food business is a tough business. It can be really challenging but also really rewarding. I think it takes a special kind of person. So yeah, it’s the people. It’s our people.”

Of all the foods the kitchen’s producers have come out with, what is your favorite morsel?

“That’s a tough one. There’s been some really delicious bread. Ajay’s Butter Chicken is phenomenal. Steamin’ Steve’s barbecue is really good. I love them all.”