Town of Unicoi Mayor Johnny Lynch is joined by other local officials as he cuts the ceremonial ribbon for the grand opening of the Mountain Harvest Kitchen. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

By Brad Hicks

It took a dash of visioning, a pinch of persistence, a smidgen of patience and just the right mix of dedicated people to create the Town of Unicoi’s long-awaited Mountain Harvest Kitchen, a venture town officials feel will be a key ingredient in each user’s recipe for success.

A grand opening and ribbon cutting ceremony for the town’s recently-completed community kitchen was held on Friday, Aug. 11, and it won’t be long before clients of the 4,000 square-foot facility begin churning out confections and canned goods that may find themselves on store shelves and at farmers markets.

“Words can’t explain how thrilled I am to be here, standing here in front of this building today,” Town of Unicoi Mayor Johnny Lynch said as he addressed those attending Friday’s event.

The Mountain Harvest Kitchen project was first envisioned around a decade ago. Town officials have viewed the project as not only a shared-use processing kitchen but also as a business incubator, as users will be able to sell the food prepared and produce canned within the facility.

The kitchen contains industrial-sized equipment for baking, dehydrating, vegetable processing and canning, as well as walk-in cooler/freezer and dry storage space.

“It’s inspiring to see where hard work and dedication can take a small idea when somebody truly believes in it,” said Mountain Harvest Kitchen Director Lee Manning. “We are pleased to be opening our doors today in support of a vibrant and growing food community.”

According to the Town of Unicoi, kitchen clients will be provided with technical support, financial and marketing counseling, regulatory guidance and food safety training tailored to unique food ideas. The facility will also host seminars and demonstrations on topics relating to food safety, food preservation, cooking techniques and nutrition.

“The Mountain Harvest Kitchen allows companies and individuals to test their ideas with very little capital investment of their own,” Manning said. “We also want to serve as your home for culinary, nutritional and business education. Whether you’re the next hottest food truck or jam maker, we are here to support you in your endeavors. We want to see your products on the shelves and we want to help you get there.”

To help get the project off the ground, the Mountain Harvest Kitchen Committee was formed, and the group worked for several years to plan and develop the facility. In 2014, the Town of Unicoi purchased the building that would come to serve as the Mountain Harvest Kitchen. A groundbreaking for the kitchen was held in July 2015.

In September 2016, the Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen accepted a nearly $685,000 bid from the Kingsport-based Armstrong Construction to to complete construction on the second and final phase of the Mountain Harvest Kitchen.

The bulk of the approximately $1.2 million Mountain Harvest Kitchen project was funded through federally-administered grant monies received by the Town of Unicoi, including funding totaling more than $900,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Appalachian Regional Commission and the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

Representatives from agencies involved with the project were present for Friday’s ceremony, and Lynch expressed his appreciation for their efforts, as well as the work of other officials and volunteers, for helping to bring the Mountain Harvest Kitchen to fruition.

“You folks out there, you volunteers and you folks in these positions, are the ones that have made this thing happen, and I’m sure it’s going to be a success and I want you to be proud of it,” Lynch said.

Several of these agency representatives and others spoke during Friday’s ceremony to discuss their role in the project and its potential impact on the community. Among these speakers was former Tennessee Economic and Community Development (TNECD) commissioner and current gubernatorial candidate Randy Boyd.

More than a year ago, Boyd, then serving as the TNECD commissioner, visited the Mountain Harvest Kitchen to get a peek at the then-incomplete facility and learn more about how it would serve the community. An impressed Boyd has since discussed the project on multiple occasions, including during the Governor’s Conference held in Nashville this past fall. 

“We were so inspired that, for the last year, every place I would go, I would talk about Unicoi and about the vision you have for this kitchen,” Boyd said. “I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time. I’m so excited.”

Boyd added the kitchen will provide an opportunity to provide healthy food to the community, offer a place for local farmers to sell and promote their produce, and allow small businesses to create their products in a U.S. Food and Drug Administration-certified facility for sale in area stores.

The Mountain Harvest Kitchen will also provide a point of community pride, Boyd said. He said the project could serve as a model that other communities across the state will look to follow.

“You have a right to be proud because this is something that truly is inspirational, not just for this community and for this region, but, I think, for the entire state,” Boyd said. 

Several of the speakers commended the efforts of those who helped make the Mountain Harvest Kitchen possible. ARC Federal Co-Chair Earl Gohl said the undertaking was an investment that will help grow the community and provide for the future.

“I’m so happy to be here with a whole host of folks who have struggled and worked and have put the interests of their county ahead of their own and have really put their foot to the pedal and have driven this project to where we are today,” Gohl said. “I’m looking forward over the next several years to seeing what comes out of this kitchen and seeing the opportunities it provides to other folks and to other entrepreneurs who have an opportunity that they didn’t have before.”

Tennessee Commissioner of Tourist Development Kevin Triplett said the kitchen will add to the area’s quality of life, an essential element when trying to attract businesses.

“Every project, every building, has a cornerstone, what sets the tone for the rest of the project or the building,” Triplett said. “The first step and the cornerstone to success is commitment, and the number of people who showed up here today to celebrate this opening is a sign of that.”

“The people who actually made this happen are Johnny Lynch and his supporting group who had the dream 10 years ago, and it’s been 10 years, it’s been a long journey, but, if you stay with it, if you want it hard enough and you have the right people … this is what you can accomplish,” said USDA Rural Development Area Director Mary Short.

Several who spoke during Friday’s event touched on the economic impact the Mountain Harvest Kitchen could have on the area. Bill Forrester, director of industrial development & housing for the First Tennessee Development District, said a facility like the Mountain Harvest Kitchen is an “economic engine,” as it could lead to the small business development and the creation of jobs.

Citing a statistic from the National Business Incubator Association, Forrester said 87 percent of companies that begin in an incubator setting are successful.

“So I think that truly shows the value of a facility like this and how important it is that we support it,” he said.

Forrester added funding from the $353,000 POWER Initiative grant the Town of Unicoi received in October will be used by the kitchen for entrepreneurial training.

State Sen. Rusty Crowe was on hand to present a proclamation from the state legislature commemorating the opening of the Mountain Harvest Kitchen. That proclamation, in part, read that the kitchen “supports the development and growth of local businesses, and it is sure to reap economic and social dividends for the community as a whole.”

“We are very proud in Nashville of this project,” Crowe said. “What a catalyst it is for generating jobs and good health.”

Manning said the Town of Unicoi is now taking appointments for the training necessary to utilize the Mountain Harvest Kitchen. She said canners and others have already expressed interest in getting inside and getting work.

“Mostly, we’ve had business people interested, a couple of startups in the baking area that are looking to get in here,” Manning said. “We also have a couple of sauce manufacturers working with us that are interested.

“We’re expecting good things, tasty things.”

The Mountain Harvest Kitchen wasn’t the only project displayed Friday. A relief carving depicting buffalo was unveiled. The carving, completed by artist Joe Pilkenton, who previously worked on the Kingsport Carousel, will now be on display at the Town of Unicoi Tourist Information Center.

The Town of Unicoi in June 2016 received a $7,010 Creative Placemaking Grant through the Tennessee Arts Commission for its Unicoi Buffalo Project. The centerpiece of that project was the carving unveiled Friday.

Pilkenton worked on the carving for more than a year, completing most of the work at the Tourist Information Center.

Those wishing to schedule appointments for training at the Mountain Harvest Kitchen may contact Manning at 330-9650 or via email at lmanning@unicoitn.net or the Town of Unicoi at 743-7162.