Frugal Gourmet Catering Company works at High Country Commercial Kitchen

Laurel Howard, Donna Roberts and Debbie Synder of Frugal Gourmet Catering Company, based in Mountain City, Tennessee, preparing food in the High Country Commercial Kitchen at Ashe Family Central.

JEFFERSON — Something is cooking in the now open High Country Commercial Kitchen at Ashe Family Central.

On Friday, Aug. 16, it was a three-person team from Frugal Gourmet Catering Company, based out of Mountain City, Tenn., cooking in the newly re-opened commercial kitchen, preparing some of 2,250 meals for the WE2019 Experience Festival at Saloon Studios in West Jefferson.

According to Ashe County Cooperative Extension Director Travis Birdsell, the commercial kitchen space can be rented on a first-come, first served basis by calling the extension office at (336) 846-5850.

“We’re open,” Birdsell said. “It is a shared use commercial kitchen — it’s not for any one individual, it’s on a sign-up basis.”

Having first opened sometime in the early 2000s and last operated from 2012 to 2014, High Country Commercial Kitchen is in phase one of re-opening, aimed at providing a large-scale cooking space for nearby catering and food service businesses, according to Birdsell.

Using $30,000 appropriated to the extension in the Ashe County fiscal year 2019-2020 budget, several county government departments have worked since July to re-open the commercial kitchen, according to Birdsell, who said the kitchen has seen 50 hours of use in its first two weeks of operation.

Phase two of the kitchen’s re-opening will bring tools and appliances for value-added businesses — enabling entrepreneurs to make salsas, pies, jerkies, jams and all kinds of other food goods in the kitchen, Birdsell said.

“As people use it, we will hone the space,” Birdsell said. “We hope to have an open house this fall.”

Previously, the closest commercial kitchen setup was at Blue Ridge Food Ventures in Candler, west of Asheville — about 130 miles and two and a half hours southwest of Ashe Family Central, according to Birdsell, who said opening a commercial kitchen in Ashe County is expected to bring users from around the county, as well as neighboring areas.

Interviews will be conducted at the end of August to hire a kitchen manager, whose salary and time will be split between Ashe and Alleghany counties for the purpose of getting word out about the High Country Commercial Kitchen, bringing in revenue to help Ashe taxpayers’ $30,000 investment break even within a 2-year timeframe, as the Ashe County Board of Commissioners requested when they funded the project during a budget workshop meeting in June.

“There’s room for expansion, but we have to prove that it can work first,” Birdsell said.

Birdsell said he is optimistic for the commercial kitchen’s success this time around, now that it will have a marketing plan that includes branding and outreach, whereas previous attempts to run the kitchen failed to advertise its existence to potential users, of which Birdsell said there are many.

“The key is strategic growth,” Birdsell said. “Everything needs to be planned and done for a reason that is identified, and that reason needs to be sustainable.”

There is rentable storage space for dry, cold and frozen goods in the commercial kitchen, enabling users to leave their goods in the same place, rather than hauling them to and from Ashe Family Central with each use.

Security cameras, keyless entry and Wi-Fi will be installed at the commercial kitchen, further expanding its potential for use.

“That will mean the kitchen can be used 24 hours a day, if need be,” Birdsell said. “Hopefully we’ll get some food trucks too.”

According to Birdsell, the County of Ashe maintenance, manager’s, economic development and information technology departments assisted the Ashe cooperative extension office in getting the kitchen up and running.

For more information or to reserve the High Country Commercial Kitchen, contact the Ashe County Cooperative Extension at (336) 846-5850.

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