Users of the Mountain Harvest Kitchen are pictured participating in a Culinary Knife Skills Workshop class. Lee Manning, director of Mountain Harvest Kitchen, said workshop seats are limited and have been filling up quickly. New classes are continually being offered at Mountain Harvest Kitchen, and anyone interested in taking a class can pre-register online or by calling the kitchen. (Contributed photo)

By Kendal Groner

Since it opened in August 2017, along with regularly hosting classes and assisting businesses that are already established, the Mountain Harvest Kitchen has facilitated the development of four new food businesses in the area.

Lee Manning, director of Mountain Harvest Kitchen, said that when individuals looking to start a food business visit the kitchen, they typically start with an initial consultation and orientation that provides an overview of the equipment, processing capacity, and services the kitchen provides. Some of the amenities that the certified commercial kitchen provides include two food processing areas, a research and development lab, a receiving area, a walk-in freezer and refrigerator, dry storage and office space.

“A lot of the times I am working with people in the idea phase and they really want to know what’s here, and a lot of that conversation is focused on the regulatory requirements to get started such as business and food product licensing,” Manning said.

The consultations Manning has with clients of the kitchen include everything from developing business plans, sourcing materials and equipment, and sometimes even finding a business location.

“It really depends on the client and where they are in their business growth,” she said. “We let the client drive the conversation based on their needs.”

Nathan Brand, chef and owner of Orchard Mason, a small restaurant in Downtown Johnson City, was able to open the doors to his business in early November after utilizing the kitchen.

“It’s been pretty wonderful and a great resource,” Brand said about the kitchen. “We cooked off a lot of large pieces of meat for larger events and things like that. We have also been able to teach classes there.”

Brand, along with his business partner Kevin Masters, taught a food and beer pairing class at Mountain Harvest Kitchen, which Brand described as an exciting, hands-on class that allowed him to connect with people in the area, some of whom would become his customers.

“That really helped us get going,” Brand said. “Some of those people that came to the classes are our biggest fans, and it really helped us to launch our business and get our name out there.”

Originally from Athens, Georgia, Brand has cooked for well-known chefs such as Hugh Acheson and Peter Deale. Brand first met Manning and her husband, who are originally from Athens as well, before Mountain Harvest Kitchen was opened.

“We really hit it off, and I followed the progress of the kitchen,” said Brand. “Lee and I became friends and I got the pleasure of working with her. She is such a great leader for that space.”

Brand described the marketing assistance he received from Mountain Harvest Kitchen for the Orchard Mason as invaluable, and he said that it provided him with a platform to get his name out into the community.

“It’s always been a dream,” Brand said about opening his own restaurant. “It’s really the most practical path for a chef unless you can find a really high paying job as a head chef. Creatively, it’s also a really exciting project to start your own restaurant.”

For Manning, assisting new businesses such as Brand’s to prosper and develop is an exciting journey.

“The goal is not to have them working here permanently, but to get them to a place in their business where they can be financially stable in their own place,” Manning said.

With everything served on vintage china, The Orchard Mason serves breakfast and lunch with menu items comprised of local, artisan ingredients.

Offering vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options, Brand says some of their most popular items are avocado toast on local artisanal sourdough bread and the Tennessee lunch that includes two cheeses and 100 percent beef salami from Greenback, Tennessee.

“We focus on showcasing the best that East Tennessee has to offer,” he said. “There are so many special products we have that you can’t buy anywhere else. As someone new to the area it’s a thrilling experience to hunt down those products and serve them with my own hands, it’s very rewarding.”

Along with a master’s degree in food science and food safety, Manning has worked in food manufacturing, quality assurance, a flavor lab, and with companies of various sizes. Her diverse background in the food industry allows her to assist a wide range of clients, with many having different end goals for their time spent at the kitchen.

“Everyone has a different goal,” said Manning. “Some people have a sellable manufacturing business, but others may want more of a homesteading farming adventure.”

With the help of Mountain Harvest Kitchen, Maren Close, who has seven years of baking experience, was able to start Lazy Lady, a bakery that specializes in pastries and breads made from scratch with local, organic ingredients.

After completing a baking and pastry program at A-B Tech, Close traveled to San Francisco to expand her culinary knowledge and experiment with pastry making before she returned to Johnson City to start her business.

“I come from a long line of bakers and cooks, so moving back to Johnson City to start my baker is following my roots, as my mom would say,” Close said.

Close currently sells her products at the ETSU Farmers Market and Jonesborough Farmers Market, with aspirations to open a retail location this fall.

Since she began utilizing the kitchen, Close says it has been a great resource where she was able to take the first step in starting her business by baking all of her products there.

“It’s a great facility with a lot of space for businesses that need space to work out of, but don’t have their own commercial kitchens,” she said. “It’s given me the opportunity to work on new products and do recipe development. Lee (Manning) also has a lot of connections to people that want to support small businesses in the area.”

Some of the products Close has already begun selling include scones, banana bread, cookies, galettes and hand pies. However, she ultimately wants to sell a wider assortment of things such as specialty cakes, pies, muffins, morning buns, croissants, and several bread varieties.

“The equipment at Mountain Harvest Kitchen is great, and it gave me access to better equipment that isn’t offered anywhere else unless you have outfitted your own kitchen,” she said. “As a baker, they have several different overs: a double decker convection oven, combi steam oven, a great Bakers Pride pizza bread oven, and a separate prep room with specific equipment for doing pastries and baked goods.”

Manning said the kitchen can be a great stepping stone for those looking to start their own food businesses, but it has also benefited already established businesses by providing a large working space and offering educational classes.

“It’s really exciting and I think a lot of times people don’t really know what it takes to be in the food business,” Manning said. “We want to paint a realistic picture of what the food service industry is like and I think that’s the best service we can give people.”

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Upcoming classes at the Mountain Harvest Kitchen include a Dining with Diabetes class on April 10 and 17; a Fresh Plate-Savor the Flavor class on April 17; a Foraged Foods of Spring class on April 28; a Make Your Own Strawberry Jam class on May 8; and a Fresh-Plate Seasonal Salads Class on May 22.

The Fresh-Plate Seasonal Salad and Fresh-Plate Savor the Flavor classes will both be offered for free and lead by the University of Tennessee Extension.