Mountain Harvest Kitchen Director Lee Manning is seen with some of the equipment that will soon be utilized by kitchen users. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

By Brad Hicks

The official grand opening is still a little more than a month away, but future users of the Town of Unicoi’s long-awaited Mountain Harvest Kitchen had a chance last week to get a sneak peek of the facility.

Several open house sessions were held at the kitchen over June 26-28. Throughout the three-day period, chefs, food truck operators, community members and others stopped by to get an idea of how the kitchen will look when work is finalized and to receive information on how the project will benefit its users.

“We’ve met a lot of potential people who want to start using the space who are already making products and want a bigger space or that are just kind of figuring it out and seeing if they can benefit from the space,” said Mountain Harvest Kitchen Director Lee Manning.

Most of the Mountain Harvest Kitchen’s equipment has arrived and been set up and, although none of the equipment has been installed to allow for operation just yet, open house visitors were able to view the mixers, ovens, ranges, dehydrators and other items that will make the kitchen’s apparatuses.

Other equipment, such as a 60-gallon steam kettle and a tilting skillet, has not yet arrived but additional equipment is expected to come in around the time of the facility’s grand opening.

“It’s always a work in progress, so we’re looking at bringing in some more equipment,” Manning said. “What we have now, this is really serviceable for lots of different clients. Like we could do caterers, food trucks, bakers, those are all options at the moment, and I think that we’ll be better able to serve certain clients when we have other pieces of equipment.”

Also already in place are the community kitchen’s walk-in cooler/freezer, research and development lab, storage area and receiving area.

Interest in the Mountain Harvest Kitchen was high throughout the course of the open houses, according to Brunhilde Tober-Myer, a member of the Mountain Harvest Kitchen Committee, the group that has worked for several years to plan and develop the kitchen project. Tober-Myer said around 100 people visiting the kitchen signed the guest book as they entered. There were perhaps several dozen more who stopped by and did not sign the book, Tober-Myer said.

Several years before the kitchen project truly got off the ground, the Town of Unicoi conducted surveys around local farmers markets, asking sellers if they would utilize a facility such as the Mountain Harvest Kitchen. This survey was conducted around the time a law was enacted in the state essentially requiring processed foods sold at farmers markets to come from licensed and inspected facilities.

“They were so excited,” Tober-Myer said of those who completed the survey. “We got so many positive responses at that time. Then they’d ask us, ‘When is it going to be (open)?’ They were so disappointed that it took this long, but it took this long, A, for the planning and, B, you’ve got to have the planning done before you can apply for grant money.”

Both Tober-Myer and Manning said the Mountain Harvest Kitchen will be a certified facility, meaning those who use the kitchen to prepare or process foods may sell their fare on the open market.

“What people process in here, they can take to the farmers market and sale,” Tober-Myer said. “If they do enough numbers, then they can go to Food City. Food City would love to put this stuff on the shelves since it’s locally made.”

“Really that’s the benefit is providing a certified space and the equipment to people, which is a huge, huge startup cost that a lot of new businesses can’t justify taking on,” Manning added. “Secondly, there’s the guidance in navigating through regulations. That’s a really tricky process, and so we’re going to be able to help people get on track to get going.”

Tober-Myer said those visiting were impressed how the facility has taken shape. Tober-Myer, who has been involved with the project since it’s infancy, shared that sentiment.

“It turned out so good, so good,” Tober-Myer said.

Tober-Myer said a ribbon cutting ceremony for the Mountain Harvest Kitchen is planned for Aug. 11. The kitchen is expected to open to the public following this event.

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

In 2014, the town purchased the building that would eventually serve as the Mountain Harvest Kitchen.

In September, the Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen accepted the nearly $685,000 bid from the Kingsport-based Armstrong Construction to complete construction on the second and final phase of the kitchen project. This phase included the necessary additions and alterations needed to convert the 4,000 square-foot structure to a commercial-grade kitchen.

The renovation work began in October and was completed in May.

The bulk of the project has been funded through federally-administered grant monies received by the Town of Unicoi.

Entrepreneurial training opportunities, as well as demonstrations and other classes, will also be offered to kitchen users. Manning, who was hired to serve as the kitchen’s director in April and began work in mid-May, said some such classes have already been held at the Town of Unicoi’s Tourist Information Center, which is located adjacent to the Mountain Harvest Kitchen along Unicoi Village Place.

Manning said once the kitchen is up and running, she anticipates that the facility will not only benefit those in the community but the region as a whole.

“It’s a pretty unique concept, so I think it’ll get used by a wide group of people,” Manning said.