It’s a busy morning at Mountain Food Products. Employees are answering phones, rifling through paper invoices, and getting deliveries ready for the day. Boxes of tomatoes and peaches are packed up and wheeled out to trucks, which will deliver produce to hundreds of restaurants in Western North Carolina.
Ron Ainspan is the founder of Mountain Food Products, which has distributed local produce to restaurants and institutions in Western North Carolina since 1984. The company grew alongside the local food movement in the region, offering chefs an easy way to source local products from multiple farms.
“The foundation of the business was promoting local agriculture,” Ron remembers. “I was farming in the late ‘70s through the mid-80s and started getting together a handful of local food producers. The idea was to set up a local distribution network for locally produced food products.”
When asked why he transitioned from farming to wholesale distribution, he laughs and says he would have rather kept farming. “But I had kids coming along and I needed to make a couple extra pennies a year, so I tried to blend the farming with the distribution business. There was so much demand for distribution that I kind of shifted over to that over the next couple of years,” he says.
But back in the ‘80s, Asheville wasn’t an epicenter of farm-to-table restaurants like it is today. It took a leap of faith for Ron to start a business that hinged on a handful of chefs purchasing local food.
“In the early years, there wasn’t really all that much interest in local food,” Ron says. “There were maybe 10 restaurants in town. This was a sleepy little city back in the early 80s, but over time that just developed and we pushed it along and traveled along with it just to be a part of it.”
Local food was gaining traction in certain parts of the United States, and as Western North Carolina gained more restaurants and farmers markets, chefs sought out more local products. Ron was able to expand his connections with farmers, restaurants, and his own employees.
“One of the things I tell people is that we’ve tried to build relationships and communities on three levels,” he says. “One is with the restaurants who are our customers and keep us going. The other is with our farmers. We want to build that connection between farm and city. And the third is right here with the people who work in the building, just making that as productive and as satisfying as it can be for them.”
In season, Mountain Food Products offers fruits, vegetables and specialty items that are produced within 100 miles of Asheville, though they do deliver restaurant staples like avocados that are grown outside of the region.
Sometimes the company ends up with small amounts of produce that would be more appealing to home cooks than a restaurant that needs large quantities of each ingredient. So about 10 years ago, Mountain Food Products started a multi-farm CSA-style option for community members. This was a good way to work with smaller farms that didn’t produce the volume for traditional wholesale accounts.
“It provided a way for us to deliver small amounts of product directly from farmers to customers,” he says. “So that helped out the smaller growers and provided access to our system to those people.”
Being a farmer, forming relationships with large and small farms, and selling directly to restaurants and consumers has given Ron a long-range perspective on the local food system.
“Over the 40 years or so that I’ve been involved with local agriculture, the fact that it’s grown to the point that it has an interest and community awareness, and the fact that we’ve been able to see it grow from something that was just tiny into something that’s been pretty pervasive through the area has been very rewarding,” he says.
Find Mountain Food Products and other local food distributors at www.appalachiangrown.org
Rerun Aired: February 3, 2020