Asheville food industry, technology, art combine at RAMP Studios

Mackensy Lunsford
The Citizen-Times
Michael Goode pours whole coriander into a grinder at the Spicewalla production facility at River Arts Makers Place January 23, 2018.

ASHEVILLE - It would be easy to drive right by the River Arts Makers Place Studios, or RAMP for short, perhaps dismiss it as just a small cluster of low-slung warehouses.

But there are some signs of what's happening inside, hints of the creative energy of the industrious artists and makers who come here to work. 

Here, a sign of the growing Asheville food industry, spice makers, brewers and chocolatiers can be found working among them.

In evenings, the parking lot fills up with people headed to Ginger's Revenge, an alcoholic ginger beer brewery. 

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Meanwhile, a dance studio draws a different crowd. Nearby, there's a performance unfolding in a common gallery space near Revolve, an artists' think tank and creative space.

During the day, much of the RAMP's hustle and bustle is inside. Students from UNC Asheville work with wood, metal, technology. Cheap Joe's Art Stuff does a brisk business selling raw materials for artists.

Nearby is Spicewalla, which makes raw materials for chefs. The new spice business is from the owners of Chai Pani, the Asheville-based Indian street food restaurant that's garnered a nationwide following. 

"This space feels like a sign that Asheville's homegrown industry is booming," said owner Meherwan Irani, surrounded by a fine cumin-scented cloud. 

Meherwan Irani, owner of Chai Pani and Spicewalla, stands among his inventory of spices at his production facility at River Arts Makers Place in Asheville January 23, 2018.

Irani and his crew roast, grind and package spices, which are shipped to restaurant kitchens in the Southeast to the tune of 1,000 pounds a week through Southern Foods, a Greensboro-based food-distribution company.

That order should double in the coming weeks. Chefs who are not Southern Foods customers also stop by to sample what Spicewalla is making: uncommonly fragrant single spices and blends.

Irani is increasingly tapped for custom blends, like a Chai spice in development for High Five Coffee Bar. There's even a brisket rub for Luella's Bar-B-Que. 

"The demand for blends and rubs, I had no idea it existed," said Irani, pointing at his drawing board full of flavors in development for local and regional sources. 

Chef-made custom spice blends allow chefs to manage consistency and flavor without having to buy tubs of spices from big box distributors. "Many of those blends have so much junk in them," Irani said, turning over a box of generic barbecue rub to display the list of ingredients, with wheat at the top.

That spice rub full of gluten is a very tangible demonstration of the benefits of a city Asheville's size. There's a certain transparency that comes into play when you can look your farmer or spice producer in the eye. 

Then there's the networking. "The serendipity of running into people in a small community makes a difference," Irani said. "It's one of those scenes where it's less competitive and more collaborative."

But the focus on the provenance of ingredients is a universal movement within the artisan food culture, he added.

Michael Goode places a label on a bottle of celery seed at the Spicewalla production facility at River Arts Makers Place in Asheville January 23, 2018.

In a way, it's an extension of the open kitchen, a sort of stage where diners can watch their food being prepared. "But now they're looking past that to the delivery door, and seeing what's coming in — and who it's coming from — and that's exciting."

That collaborative spirit also plays out at Ginger's Revenge, where local Haw Creek Honey sweetens the brews.

Last year, the brewery released a limited-edition Appalachian Ginger made with more than 100 pounds of ginger sourced from Jah Works Farm, Rayburn Farm and Rise Up Rooted Farm, all within 25 miles of the brewery.

The brew will be on tap again in the fall, and also in bottles as the brewer recently launched into use a bottling line, adding an extra industrial element to its operations, as seems fitting at RAMP Studios.

"Everyone is a maker of sorts here, and it's cool to be in that creative space," said brewery co-owner Cristina Hall.

She ticked off the many instances of collaboration within the building, from hiring RAMP Studios tenant Brushcan Murals for a piece in the taproom, to Revolve's Colby Caldwell buying growlers of ginger beer for music events in the gallery space.  

"There's an opportunity to appreciate someone else's process, and it allows you to come back to your own craft from a slightly different perspective," Hall said. 

That sort of cross-pollination is a rarity for food businesses. French Broad Chocolates co-owner Dan Rattigan praised its benefits when he spoke in August of the chocolate factory's imminent move to RAMP.

They'll count UNC Asheville's new STEAM Studio as a neighbor. The university-steered art and tech facility houses equipment for 3-D modeling under the same roof as metal fabrication and a state-of-the-art woodworking facility.

"Yesterday, we met the engineering director of UNCA, and we're availing ourselves of some great opportunities to collaborate with other makers, and the science and engineering that's taking a foothold there as well," he said.

"What (STEAM) is doing is unbelievable," said Eddie Dewey, one of the owners of the RAMP. "Dan Rattigan can say, I have this cacao sorter that's messing up, and STEAM can re-engineer it, and research how to build even better equipment."

A tub of whole coriander to be finely ground at Spicewalla January 23, 2018.

Dewey said tenants like French Broad Chocolates and Spicewalla are proven players, and represent sustainable industry to bring into the fold. But more than that, "They're doing something really awesome, and we believe in them."

"If you just want who's going to pay the most rent, you're missing the point," he added.

Some of the most visionary players in Asheville invested in the "long game" long ago, he said. "They didn't want instant results. They did it because they love this town and want to do it for 15 years down the road."

Dewey said he and his partners want to "replant, regenerate and recycle those seeds."

Hotels and storage units will come, he said. That's just part of a growing city. "But every once in a while, it's important to do something great that will carry the community for a long time."

RAMP Studios is at 821 Riverside Drive.