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Local small businesses join forces to expand success

Local small businesses join forces to expand success

Local small businesses join forces to expand success

Times-News Staff Writer
Published: Saturday, November 29, 2014 at 4:30 a.m.

Patrick Sullivan/Times-News
Elise Sampson and her daughter, Carolyn Sampson, with Girls Gotta Bake!, make some spicy ginger cookies Thursday.

The owners of three local small businesses — Tito’s Specialty Foods, Health Fit Foods and ASG Strategies — have joined forces and launched WNC Artisan Foods, an incubator offering distribution services, a buyers club and commercial kitchen, and business consulting services to foodie entrepreneurs.

“It’s Western North Carolina’s first true artisan food incubator,” said Graham Mew, CEO of ASG Strategies.

He said ASG Strategies offers business consulting services to the group, while Tito Micucci of Tito’s Specialty Foods brings industry knowledge and Chuck Connolly — former executive chef at Hubba Hubba Smokehouse and creator of Health Fit Foods — brings culinary skills and oversight to the mix.

Known in Hendersonville for his hummus and pimento cheese dips, Micucci said he began brainstorming with Mew about an artisan food incubator when Tito’s Specialty Foods was on the verge of collapse.

“You can’t be everywhere at once, doing everything for your business,” he said. “I was going to shut my business down.”

He and Mew knew that several other food-based small businesses don’t profit from the sales they make after funding production, packaging, distribution and marketing costs, and came up with a cooperative-style business incubator that allows individual members to pay for only the services they require.

New member Elise Sampson, owner of Girls Gotta Bake! gluten-free desserts, said her business will begin by utilizing WNC Artisan Foods’ distribution services, which will take her products beyond local farmers markets, private orders and the Food Matters Market in Brevard.

“They will take our products … into a larger arena, like Charlotte and Greensboro,” Sampson said. “They would also introduce our products into the stores they’re already working with.”

“(Micucci) has already opened up a huge number of doors,” Mew added.

While catering to small, niche markets like Black Bear Coffee Company and Saint Paul Mountain Vineyards locally, Micucci distributes to Katuah Market and Greenlife Grocery in Asheville, and Whole Foods Market in Asheville and Greenville, S.C. – laying groundwork for products created by other WNC Artisan Foods members.

Mew said that ideally, the group wants to get its members’ products into larger-market retailers including Whole Foods Markets, Earth Fare, Fresh Markets and local co-ops and food markets.

In addition to expanding a small business’ market, distribution through WNC Artisan Foods also decreases the cost of distribution, since multiple members would be chipping in to pay for each truck delivery.

“We’re defraying the gas across 20 businesses,” Micucci said. “That’s probably the most beneficial to businesses,” especially when deliveries are as far away as Atlanta. “I would have to sell more hummus than my vehicle could even carry for that to be worth my while.”

“It’s worth it to me to pay the percentage for them to do the legwork and make deliveries,” Sampson agreed. “It’ll help cut our costs.”

Members of WNC Artisan Foods will also be able to cut costs by purchasing bulk ingredients through a buyer’s club, based on the economy of scale.

“I can buy a house and pay a mortgage, and you can buy a house and pay a mortgage. But if you and I pool our money together, we can buy three houses and pay three mortgages,” Micucci said.

By allowing nonmembers like other commercial restaurants or even individuals to add onto an order of a specific ingredient, such as sugar, the volume increases and the price goes down and saves everyone money.

“If we can save 33 percent on just one ingredient, (profit) margins significantly increase,” Micucci said.

A membership with WNC Artisan Foods will also gives foodie business owners access to a commercial kitchen overseen by Connolly, who can help improve flavor and productivity in the kitchen workspace, Mew said.

The group is still looking for the right location to open the commercial kitchen, but it will have a loading dock that can handle deliveries of bulk ingredients in palettes.

Though that location hasn’t yet been determined, Micucci said, “It’s going to be in Henderson County, and we are going to specifically have a gluten-free section. There will be access to it 24/7; it’s just a question of the scheduling.”

While Connolly will advise members in the culinary vein, and Micucci offers his experience with packaging, sales and the logistics of distribution, Mew and ASG Strategies come into play in tweaking business plans, examining sales margins and researching what makes a product profitable.

Mew said he’s already been working with WNC Artisan Foods members in developing focus groups and test kitchens to determine which member products are successful and why — and how they might be improved.

“We’re getting a number of people locally … and scheduling a focus group,” Micucci said. “Everything that they eat, they need to fill out a sheet for us, ranking or rating it … even when it comes down to the packaging.”

Mew said he asks members, “What size do we put this in, how do we package it and what’s the shelf life?” WNC Artisan Foods’ consulting, planning, cost-savings of a buyers club and group distribution, and eventually a commercial kitchen, will help launch local food businesses and ensure their successes.

“The difference between being a hobby and winning as a company is getting into stores,” Mew said.

For more information about WNC Artisan Foods, call Micucci at 828-393-8762 or Mew at 828-388-1767.

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