GREENVILLE — On a weekday afternoon, a group of 25 is gathered at Blue Ridge Food Ventures in Candler, N.C. They have come from across South Carolina – Charleston, Beaufort, Clinton – for an up-close look at how the 7-year-old nonprofit commercial kitchen works.

The group stops at a display case full of sauces, specialty mustards, pickled vegetables, teas, soaps and lotions – all made in the kitchen.

The visitors hope to establish similar facilities around South Carolina to help nurture budding food businesses.

Every product in the case tells a story.

The Bamboo Ladies pickles are made by a woman from Raleigh, N.C., who left the corporate world to market an old family recipe. The Satisfy Your Soul line of ethnic sauces is made by a woman who drives from Burlington to use the kitchen. Gallo Lea Organics pizza kits are made by a man who was laid off as an engineer and decided to finally pursue his love of cooking.

Clinton City Manager Frank Stovall has come for the tour with Norman Scarborough and Stephen Taylor to learn how to develop and run a successful commercial kitchen in their city.

“That barbecue sauce that all the neighbors come for on July 4th,” Stovall said. “It’s the vessel that takes that dream to reality.”

A depressed economy and high unemployment have refocused discussion on small business growth, with business incubators such as this one becoming key catalysts. The incubators help entrepreneurs launch new ventures by providing business training, funding help and space.

A plan for growth

Statewide interest is growing in kitchen incubators like the one in North Carolina as a way to foster business, said Devin Swindall, who teaches agricultural business classes through the Clemson Institute for Economic and Community Development.

Last year, the Institute conducted a survey to gauge interest in incubator kitchens, and the response was overwhelming, said Swindall, who helped collect the results.

“The big thing is, one of these startups is very costly,” Swindall said.

A model for others

Blue Ridge Food Ventures has drawn attention for its success and for being one of the few such facilities in the area.

The commercial kitchen was founded in 2005 under AdvantageWest Economic Development Group, western North Carolina’s regional economic development commission. Grants from local economic and agricultural development foundations got the 11,000-square-foot commercial kitchen and manufacturing facility up and running, and today it generates enough income to pay its own operating expenses, excluding salaries.

Blue Ridge Food Ventures currently has about 50 clients who pay an hourly fee to use the kitchen for food businesses.

In South Carolina, the only options for those wanting to start full-time food businesses are to invest in a business space, to use an already established certified kitchen in a restaurant or bakery, or to construct a separate certified kitchen off their homes.

“There’s not a lot of people that have that,” said Katie Pittinaro, co-founder of Happy Frog Kitchen, which produces homemade artisan jams.

The Spartanburg Happy Frog began producing at Blue Ridge Food Ventures in April. Pittinaro and her partner, Christie Etzel, drive an hour or so each way to use the facilities twice a month.

Growing small business

It took Etzel and Pittinaro all of 10 minutes to decide they wanted to go into business together. It took them a few months to decide to make jam. It took them about 12 months to figure out where to do it.

After exhausting other options, including the idea of starting a commercial kitchen themselves, the Upstate women decided going to Asheville was their best option. By April, during peak strawberry season, they were set up in one of Blue Ridge Food Venture’s three kitchens, producing 60 to 70 jars of jam at a time.

Blue Ridge has been invaluable both for Happy Frog and for Pittinaro and Etzel, neither of whom has any formal business training. In just six months, Happy Frog has been able to spread its jam across state lines.

“If we were just making it in our kitchen, I don’t know if we would have as many contacts as we do,” Pittinaro said. “I mean, we win over hearts at the farmers market when people taste our stuff, but we’ve gotten calls and emails from people as far as Tennessee.”

Blue Ridge Food Ventures’s incubator arm provides business help to all its clients. Workshops cover topics like how to market a product to how to develop capital. In seven years, Blue Ridge has helped more than 230 food businesses grow, resulting in more than $7 million in sales and supporting at least 20 full-time and 50 part-time jobs per year.

“They not only provide the space, but they provide education as well,” said Ebony Johnson, founder of Veg-ta-Bowls, a vegetarian prepared-meal company based in Simpsonville.

Johnson, a public relations and marketing consultant, started saving for her business in 2006 and found the facility in North Carolina in 2011. Since Veg-Ta-Bowls is still a part-time venture for her, she usually puts in eight to nine hours on production days when she can get to Blue Ridge on the weekends. The distance (an average three-hour round trip) has pushed Veg-ta-Bowls’ official launch date forward, from March 2012 to January 2013.

It would be much easier, Johnson said, to have such a place close by. “It would be huge, not only for me but for other entrepreneurs.”

From idea to reality

Blue Ridge Food Ventures includes three kitchens total, a commercial cooler and freezer, storage space for ingredients and finished products and packing materials and a wide range of industrial kitchen equipment.

The facility, which has clients as far away as Raleigh, has helped support local farmers, too, particularly as more develop alternative revenue streams like value-added products such as jams, sauces, breads or soaps and lotions. That’s where Swindall, with the Clemson Institute, sees possibilities for rural areas like Clinton.

“Farmers have a need for a place where they can create a value-added product,” Swindall said. “Even if it’s just wash-and-bag produce, they aren’t allowed to do that without one of these facilities.”

Stovall, Taylor and Scarborough see great possibilities for Clinton. They leave North Carolina ready to write a business plan and develop a kitchen incubator in the Upstate.

“Regionally there’s a pent-up demand for opportunities to grow your business,” Stovall said. “And in this economy, nobody steps out on their own without a safety net. This is a safety net.”