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Mountain Harvest Kitchen client worried TCAT lease could impact her business

Contributed Photo • From left, Midoho Okpokowuruk, Emem Okpokowuruk and Paul Okpokowuruk work to pack the finished containers of Royal Red Stew into cartons.

By Richard Rourk

Some clients of Unicoi’s Mountain Harvest Kitchen are uneasy about a commitment the Unicoi mayor has made to Tennessee College of Applied Technology to lease the facility to TCAT for classroom instruction.

One of those clients, Helen Okpokowuruk, described Mountain Harvest Kitchen as an important lifeline for small food businesses like her own. Okpokowuruk owns and operates Royal Red Stew and depends on reliable access to Mountain Harvest Kitchen to meet her production schedule.

Okpokowuruk said that she and other clients of Mountain Harvest Kitchen are concerned about a possible lease being discussed between Mountain Harvest Kitchen and TCAT.

“The Mountain Harvest Kitchen and Business Incubator have been funded by Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) and Economic Development Association (EDA) grants, smaller grants and many volunteer hours,” Okpokowuruk said. 

“We were notified, after the fact, that the Mayor of Unicoi, Kathy Bullen, has signed what appears to be a Tennessee Board of Regents lease agreement between the town of Unicoi and TCAT,” Okpokowuruk said. “The lease agreement is to have TCAT rent the MHK for $1 per year.” 

Okpokowuruk is worried that the lease would give TCAT sole command space of the kitchen any time TCAT wishes, including Monday through Friday from early morning until late afternoon.

“TCAT wants this property to start a culinary program,” Okpokowuruk said. “No consideration has been made to accommodate the current paying clients of the incubator.”

Unicoi Mayor Kathy Bullen said that she hopes to ease any anxiety about the kitchen going forward.

Bullen explained that the MHK can be home to both clients and a TCAT program. 

“The most important thing for everyone to understand is that there is not a desire or plan for the town to close MHK,” Bullen said. “I have people asking me if I plan on closing the kitchen. There is no desire or plan to close MHK.”

The mayor noted that a TCAT culinary program would meet Monday through Thursday from about 7 a.m. until about 4 p.m. 

“The MHK is designed to stay open 24 hours a day,” Bullen added. “We are open 24 hours a day — it always has been.

“That’s 168 hours a week,” the mayor continued. “TCAT will be occupying the building for less than 40 hours a week. That leaves more than 128 hours a week for clients to utilize the kitchen.”

Okpokowuruk said that there has been a lack of communication in regards to the future of MHK. 

“The mayor has declined to discuss this lease with the current users of MHK,” Okpokowuruk said. “The president of TCAT has never met with users of the kitchen. This was done behind our backs and will ruin our businesses.”

Okpokowuruk also questions whether TCAT’s use of the facility would comply with the intent of the ARC and EDA grants.

Contributed Photo • Helen Okpokowuru stirs a pot of her Royal Red Stew in the facilities offered by Unicoi’s Mountain Harvest Kitchen. She worries that MHK’s current clients will suffer if a lease with Tennessee College of Applied Technology is finalized without considerations for current users of the facility.

“Neither ARC nor the EDA has granted the mayor of Unicoi to change the scope of business as agreed upon by these two sizable grants,” Okpokowuruk said. “This agreement is not in compliance with these two governmental agencies.”

Bullen acknowledged that she has a verbal commitment that a culinary program will meet the integrity of the grants used to create MHK. 

“I have been told that TCAT would meet the integrity of the grants that funded MHK,” Bullen said. 

The full Board of Mayor and Alderman has not yet authorized the lease agreement with TCAT. 

“As far as discussions with clients of MHK, they have participated in our open BMA meetings and have sent communication voicing their concerns,” Bullen said. “I have attempted to answer their concerns during the BMA meetings and with a personal response. I have addressed those concerns.”

For Okpokowuruk, her Royal Red Stew enterprise has been a dream come true, thanks to MHK. 

“When I came to Mountain Harvest Kitchen in early 2019, Royal Red Stew was just a dream,” Okpokowuruk said. “MHK helped me finalize the formula for my sauce, obtain the required state and federal certifications and start the manufacturing of my product.”

She said that Royal Red Stew is now sold in over 200 locations in 19 states. 

“Six months ago, I was able to quit my job and run the business full time,” Okpokowuruk said. “It is now my livelihood.”

Okpokowuruk said that she paid a total of $5,904 in rent to MHK in 2021. “The other entrepreneurs using MHK pay even more,” she said. “It is disheartening to see our dreams go up in smoke to a TBR school that will have access to this nearly $1,000,000 facility for a mere $1 a year.”

She wants to expand her business in 2022 but fears that a TCAT program could end that expansion. 

“I am planning to expand Royal Red Stew to an additional 20 states,” Okpokowuruk said. “Taking the daytime hours of production away from me would be tantamount to killing my business. I thought TBR schools were here to support their local communities, not hinder entrepreneurism and economic development by literally putting us out of business. Mountain Harvest Kitchen has helped make my dream of successfully starting a business come true.”

As for Mayor Bullen, she said that she hopes that clients and students can share the space to expand businesses in the region and allow more people to live their dreams.  

“The goal of MHK is to be a business incubator,” Bullen said. “MHK isn’t closing. We are not kicking anybody out.”

Okpokowuruk also hopes to see an amicable solution. 

“I believe the entrepreneurs and the school could co-exist,” she said. “The students can use another location for classroom instruction and use the kitchen only for lab work. They could sign up for space to use the kitchen as we do. 

“Other ways could be worked out that do not require current entrepreneurs being displaced if the mayor and Dean Blevins would speak to us,” Okpokowuruk noted.