Mountain Harvest Kitchen sets new strategic course

Sue Guinn Legg • Nov 6, 2019 at 9:57 PM

UNICOI — After two years of work to get Mountain Harvest Kitchen up and running, the town of Unicoi’s regional food business incubator is implementing a new five-year strategic plan to better serve the local food industry and its entrepreneurs.

Developed through a grant-funded partnership with food industry consultants from the firm of Karen Karp & Partners, the new Mountain Harvest Kitchen 2020 Strategic Plan was presented at a Wednesday luncheon catered by three of the 25 food businesses the kitchen has helped launch since its September 2017 opening.

Described as “a community vision for the future of the local food system and food entrepreneurs,” the plan was formulated in part through input gathered from more than 100 food industry stakeholders in a public engagement conducted in July in Unicoi and at the East Tennessee State University Innovation Lab in Johnson City.

Mountain Harvest Kitchen Director Lee Manning said, “To better understand the needs of the community, we sought wide-ranging input from small food businesses, farmers, entrepreneurial development advocates and other key stakeholders.”

According to Manning, the plan’s development also involved an extensive review of the food industry and comparisons of similar food business incubation programs to the current operations at Mountain Harvest Kitchen.

The resulting plan will be used to direct future programming at the kitchen with the goal of addressing gaps in the region’s “food business ecosystem” and ultimately bolstering economic activity across the region.

Ben Kerrick, senior consultant for KK&P, began Wednesday’s presentation with a review of the kitchen’s accomplishments over its first two years: 25 new businesses launched, 36 jobs created, a quarter of a million dollars in new commerce generated, and almost $2 million in grant funding leveraged.

Kerrick said key findings in the several months of research and community engagement that went into the development of the plan was to the need to “clarify the kitchen’s mission and approach” for the many people and potential partners who do not know what Mountain Harvest Kitchen does.

While the concept of the kitchen has evolved over the more than a decade of work that went into its opening and during the first two years of its operation, Kerrick said “the reality is the kitchen’s primary focus is to support food entrepreneurs” not just in Unicoi but across the three-state region.

Kerrick said comparisons of the kitchen to some of the most successful food business incubators in the nation also revealed expectations for its success need to be “recalibrated” beyond the financial self sufficiency timeline and unrealistic revenue goals set out in the kitchen’s initial business plan.

“Measurement of success should be businesses created. The kitchen has a lot of potential to both revenues and other funding partners,” he said.

New objectives set out in the plan include the creation of a new advisory board made up of local food industry and business development experts and creation of new partnerships and collaborations to create more businesses, jobs and economic activity.