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Wednesday, 27 November 2013 15:04

Elementary school’s old cafeteria helps new breed of entrepreneurs

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fr finescreekBy Colby Dunn • Correspondent

On a recent sunny afternoon, Deb Shalosky is standing in the kitchen pantry at the Fines Creek Community Center, a little autumnal sun glinting off the neatly labeled octagonal jar in her outstretched hand. 

 

“Here,” she says, “the pepper butter is  good, too. It’s made with banana peppers that we grow, hot banana peppers.”  Earlier this morning, these peppers were, well, just peppers, but now they’re an official product of Fines Creek Fine Foods, Shalosky’s homegrown business. It’s something of a far cry from high school English teacher to small business owner, and Shalosky says readily that it doesn’t come naturally. The marketing racket, she says, is not quite her thing. 

“I have absolutely no business acumen at all,” she notes, with an extra little laugh to punctuate the point.  

It was her business, however, that started it all in 2011, and she’s still a success, now in her third year. In need of a legal, inspected location to turn out her jams, butters and syrups, she spearheaded an effort to turn the community center’s old, seldom-used cafeteria kitchen into a USDA certified, level one, value-added kitchen. It’s an official-sounding title, and with merit. USDA certification is no paltry feat, but what that certified stamp really means is that blossoming businesses can have a chance that might otherwise be out of their grasp. 

“We want to see it be an attractive space for additional users in the sense that there really isn’t another facility in Haywood County like this, this kind of space,” says Karen Hammett, president of the Fines Creek Community Association. 

“Folks need sometimes just a one-time access to a kitchen. They don’t need it on-site all the time. This is a good way to do that. I know we’re in a rural community, but we also can see this being an access for folks with big gardens to be able to do something with those products and maybe not only benefit their family health-wise, but also maybe a source of income that they can have coming into their family.”

Here at the community center, you can drop a small deposit and a nominal hourly fee to use the commercial-grade facilities. There’s counter space for miles (or many, many yards at the very least), industrial sinks, a newly donated commercial oven and stove, refrigerators, and even extra storage space. Now, with a $3,500 Toolbox Implementation Fund Grant from the Southwestern NC Planning and Economic Development Commission, they’re hoping to add a lot more to the repertoire. 

“The better facilities that one has, the more likely you will have — even though we’re far out — people come and use it,” says Hammett. 

Currently they’ve got big designs on the cash, mostly in the form of various necessary safety upgrades — fire suppression systems, ventilation upgrades and the like — that will pull the space out of the 1960s and make it safe and compliant for the long term. 

But there are other, bigger ideas too, if there’s any money left over. 

“We are hoping to get a dishwasher and refrigeration equipment,” says Shalosky, looking longingly towards a wall of mismatched residential refrigerators and the large, but still not automated, dish sink in the corner. “It would be nice. A little bit at a time.”

The dollars come as a matching grant, so to get the money, they must come up with another $3,500 on their own. But those contributions can be in the form of donations, like the Vulcan oven waiting to be installed in its new home, or in-kind gifts such as volunteer hours logged making improvements or tradesmen donating their expertise. 

The association hopes the upgrades will provide a more versatile workspace with room to grow. The pantry is currently home to Shalosky, with her supplies and inventory, to Chef Ricardo Fernandez, one-time owner of Waynesville’s storied Lomo Grill and current cooking sauce king, who also holds cooking classes at the center, and a few other entrepreneurs, have carved out their niches. The remaining floor-to-ceiling shelves are dotted with stray equipment, but mostly, they’re waiting for the next brilliant baker, aspiring jam artist or future canning connoisseur to call them home. 

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