Mountain Harvest Kitchen Business Incubator

Unicoi County, Tennessee

The Town of Unicoi is located in Northeast Tennessee ten miles from the largest municipality in the region, Johnson City and a short drive to Asheville N.C.  Nested in the Cherokee National Forest, Unicoi is located in the valley portion of Unicoi County; hence, the county's slogan "The Valley Beautiful".  The mountain location is an asset and a unique challenge when it comes to economic development.  

The county and its towns have played a significant role in the mining and transportation of coal, and development was closely tied with the growth of the railroad in the region. In October 2015, the county learned that the CSX rail yard was closing. The announcement included the news of the termination of 300 workers and signaled the end of the economic engine for the county. Based on economic modeling completed by East Tennessee State University (ETSU) Bureau of Business and Economic Analysis, the loss of 300 jobs at CSX would result in another 90 jobs lost in Unicoi County.

This loss of coal related jobs made Unicoi County and surrounding counties eligible for ARC Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization (POWER) funding. A Strategic Planning Working Group comprised of elected officials, economic development professionals, state and federal agency staff, and university leaders was instrumental in identifying regional priorities and developing POWER grant applications. Their overarching goal for the POWER projects was to invest in opportunities to move the economy of the 3-county region forward after the CSX closure. Long-term strategies focusing on entrepreneurial development, tourism development and workforce development emerged as priorities and reflected strategic plans and projects already in place.  

Local Food Systems Economic Development

The Mountain Harvest Kitchen (MHK) was identified as a promising asset and a top priority for a POWER application. The MHK was created in 2013 to support the local foods system and economic development opportunities for the region through an initial $900,000 investment of ARC, EDA, USDA Rural Development, and Town of Unicoi funding. The POWER working group knew that the county and region are comprised of small family operated mountain farms and that residents had a history of growing their own food and preserving it for their families.

The working group also knew that the unprecedented demand for locally and regionally produced foods would continue to grow across the United States and that their region was well situated to take advantage of this growing market. Increasing federal and state regulations to ensure safe food processing also came into play in the decision making.

Mountain Harvest Kitchen Business Incubator

New MHK programs were designed with an emphasis on homegrown businesses and food-related entrepreneurial development. The region already had large and successful commercial growers such as Scott's Farms and Thompson Farms along with numerous smaller growers, and being able to add value to existing products and support small business development made a lot of sense for the region.

To build upon these producer assets, the MHK was designed to support farmers and food product entrepreneurs in seven counties within a 50-mile radius including Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia. The area has several large commercial growers of tomatoes, strawberries, and blueberries that ship to large cities, and product that was too ripe for shipping, but ideal for processing, would be an excellent match for businesses using the kitchen incubator. There were also five successful farmers’ markets operating in the Tri-Cities Area. Each market had potential entrepreneurs lacking the opportunity to become a self-sustaining, profitable business operator due to the lack of access to a certified kitchen. The Town has even been able to secure assurances from local supermarkets like Food City, Kroger, Ingles, Fresh Market and Earth Fare to provide shelf space for locally grown products produced at the MHK.

Goals of the Mountain Harvest Kitchen Incubator POWER project were to:

  • Advance a sustainable food system in northeast Tennessee (and beyond) that improves economic development and indirectly improves health outcomes
  • Foster broader collaborations between food growers, food preparers and food distributers
  • Identify, grow and support new food based items and businesses such as: push carts, mobile food units, mobile food trucks, farmer's market vendors, caterers, bakers, chocolatiers, wedding cake bakers, pastry chefs, bread bakers, chefs who plan to create candies, cookies, treats, jams, jellies, relishes, pickled produce, and other specialty foods

The group determined that these goals would best be accomplished by:

  • Providing a strong entrepreneurial development component to provide opportunities for use of the facility to allow producers to add value to their product and expand their market
  • Allowing producers to add value to their product and expand their market
  • Facilitate locally grown businesses that were more likely to stay in the region

To accomplish these strategies, MHK kitchen incubator educational programming was designed to focus strongly on entrepreneur development and buy local initiatives that would leverage the investments in equipment with business development. The kitchen incubator would be a primary host site for training to assist targeted CSX employees and their families and all entrepreneurs with a focus on use of the kitchen facility in developing or expanding local businesses. A multi-phase approach was taken with the entrepreneurial training:

  • The Appalachian Resource & Conservation District (ARC&D) would offer "The Field School Program" targeting beginning farmers, part-time farmers, and farmers working to expand their farming operations who could benefit from new opportunities available at the MHK
  • The University of Tennessee Center for Profitable Agriculture (UT CPA) would offer the “Food for Profit” program to farmers, kitchen incubator users, and farmer's market vendors, and the University of Kentucky “MarketReady” Program would address market development risks and relationships small farmers must manage as they seek to develop supplier relationships
  • The POWER grant would give MHK the opportunity to conduct at least three CO.STARTERS 9-week cohorts in Unicoi, Carter and Washington counties that would be targeted to kitchen incubator users that have a product or highly developed idea for a product that is ready to go through an accelerated process of determining its potential and viability

In addition, a new USDA Rural Business Development Grant is providing funding for targeted training programs aimed at beginning and existing farmers and food entrepreneurs.

Community and Economic Impact

Projected three year economic impacts produced through the project will include $1.2 million of private sector investment by users of the Mountain Harvest Kitchen and entrepreneurial training programs. Specific POWER project three-year goals include the use of the MHK Incubator to improve 178 businesses, service 91 facility users, create 60 new jobs and catalyze $500,000 of private sector investments by assisted businesses, provide Entrepreneurial Training Programs to train 91 entrepreneurs, assist 32 new businesses to start or expand, and create new private sector investment of $700,000 in businesses started or expanded through entrepreneurial training programs.  First year results include:

MHK Incubator:  
Total facility users (businesses & individuals, class participants, incubator members) 527+
Class Participants 447
Businesses served and improved (applicants & advising sessions)  70+
Incubator Members 10
New businesses assisted and created 12
New jobs created  14
Private sector investment  $80,000+
MHK Entrepreneurial Training Programs:
Field School   
Total Cohorts Completed 1
Total Participants Served 13
Business start-ups/expansions   13
New private sector investments $220,000
Food for Profit and Market Ready:
Total Cohorts Completed 2
Total Participants Served 52
Total Regional Cohorts Completed (Johnson City and Erwin) 3
Total Participants Served 26
Businesses started/expanded  6
New private sector investments $300,000

Project Funding

(kitchen incubator equipment, entrepreneur training and services)
Town of Unicoi Match
Appalachian Resource & Conservation District Farm Mentor In-kind (Intern)
East Tennessee Small Business Development Center In-kind (training) 
East Tennessee Innovation Lab In-kind (training)
USDA Rural Business Development Grant (farmers market pavilion)
Tennessee Department of Health - Health Access Grant (training, nutrition education, Footsteps with Foodies walking campaign)
TOTAL PROJECT FUNDING (Projections for federal and state grant funding, local investments, and in-kind contributions)

Project Leadership and Partners 

Mountain Harvest Kitchen – Executive Director – Project Contact
The Town of Unicoi – Mayor – Project Contact
Unicoi County Economic Development Board
First Tennessee Development District
East Tennessee State University
Appalachian Sustainable Development
Specialty Food Association
Food City
Three Rivers Market
University of Georgia Food Science & Technology Department
University of Kentucky Food Systems Innovation Center
University of Tennessee Extension Service
University of Tennessee Center for Profitable Agriculture
Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development
Tennessee Department of Agriculture
Tennessee Department of Health
USDA Rural Development – Tennessee Office

For project information contact the Mountain Harvest Kitchen.


ARC Entrepreneurship Development and POWER Programs

The mission of the Appalachian Regional Commission is to innovate, partner, and invest to build community capacity and strengthen economic growth in Appalachia. ARC supports a variety of activities to help diversify the Region's economic base, develop and market strategic assets, increase the competitiveness of existing businesses, foster the development and use of innovative technologies, and enhance entrepreneurial activity. The ARC POWER Initiative supports efforts to create a more vibrant economic future for coal-impacted communities by cultivating economic diversity, enhancing job training and re-employment opportunities, creating jobs in existing or new industries, and attracting new sources of investment. Through ARC funding, TNECD is able to award grants each year for economic and community development projects in the 52 counties in middle and east Tennessee served by the ARC.  

For more information visit TNECD Community and Rural Development.