Tucked within the heart of the Appalachian Mountains in the beautiful town of Unicoi, Mountain Harvest Kitchen (MHK) helps those passionate about food.
Led by Director Lee Manning, the certified culinary production facility offers culinary classes and workshops on business planning, culinary skills and marketing; use of commercial equipment including dry storage, walk-in coolers and freezers; advising services in recipe scaling, production streamlining and growing a business. There’s also a network of local retailers, distributors and more to support both up-and- coming and existing businesses.
“Mountain Harvest Kitchen is a tremendous asset to our community,” Manning says. “We’re helping people learn more about food systems both in the classroom and through firsthand experience. It could be understanding nutrition and labels, interpreting food claims, sourcing ingredients, marketing products, improving processes or developing business strategies.”
While the kitchen bears an East Tennessee address, its impact crosses state lines. MHK has helped people interested in starting a food business from Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina and Mississippi.
“Starting a food business is challenging but very rewarding,” Manning says. “Our hope is that entrepreneurs walk away from their experiences here feeling better equipped to navigate the hurdles of the food industry.”
Woodland Baking Co.
“Northeast Tennessee is lucky to have a food incubator like Mountain Harvest Kitchen,” says Hannah Huffines, owner and creator of Woodland Baking Co.
Huffines started baking when she was only 15 years old and now runs her own bakery in Johnson City, specializing in gluten-free and allergy-friendly treats. Customer favorites range from decadent cupcakes and chocolate chip cookies to rustic wedding cakes and multigrain breads.
When Huffines moved back to Johnson City from Nashville, she was pondering the future of her bakery and how to get her company off the ground in a new area. She was familiar with the concept of a food incubator and decided to reach out to Manning at MHK for advice.
“From my initial meetings about joining to figuring out my bakery’s next steps, Mountain Harvest Kitchen has always provided me with the right tools and connections to move forward,” Huffines says.
Hawk Nest Farm
Owner and operator of Hawk Nest Farm in Limestone, Ron Hawkins raises Wagyu cattle and Wagyu crosses for some of the world’s best beef. But when he discovered certain cuts of meat weren’t selling as quickly as he expected, he came up with a creative solution to his problem.
“To find a way to handle my freezer storage capacity, I decided to make beef jerky,” Hawkins says.
After his test batch received an overwhelming positive response from customers at the farmers market, Hawkins knew he’d created a great product. But online searches for advice on making and selling jerky didn’t prove helpful. That’s when he turned to Mountain Harvest Kitchen for assistance.
“Meeting with Mountain Harvest Kitchen was key to my decision to make Wagyu jerky,” Hawkins says. The incubator had the equipment and facility space Hawkins needed to run his operation but couldn’t afford to purchase on his own. “In the beginning, I thought the cost and my lack of knowledge about making jerky were problems I couldn’t overcome,” Hawkins says. “But MHK addressed both and provided me with a path to grow my business.”
Driving Economic Development
Culinary incubators are popping up across the state, providing interested parties with opportunities to launch satisfying careers and create more jobs in their local markets.
Kaleidoscope Kitchen in Memphis caters to minority entrepreneurs, providing low- priced kitchen rentals and technical and business training. Similarly, Cumberland Culinary Center in Lebanon offers career training and commercial kitchen space to area farmers and aspiring business owners.
“Local food systems are incredibly powerful and important drivers of economic development and diversification,” Manning says. “Our goal at Mountain Harvest Kitchen is to focus on improving the regional food economy and helping entrepreneurs transform their passions into viable businesses.”