Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Ramona Young

Headshot of Ramona YoungOWNER

She’d found a niche that probably not even many of Asheville’s own residents noticed was missing. It was a void in a town noted for what author Richard Florida two decades ago famously called its creative class, a mix of artists, musicians, genders and global accents. 

“I grew up here,” says Ramona Young. “I know we have a reputation for being diverse, but we really aren’t.” 

Young was poised to fill a gap with Kente Kitchen Market. She had a psychology degree from UNC Charlotte, training at the Community Culinary School of Charlotte and fresh credentials from Asheville-Buncombe Community College’s entrepreneurship program. The catering business gave her the chance to fulfill a childhood dream of being her own boss while serving traditional West African dishes. 

Four years later, Young and Kente Kitchen remain a central figure in the region’s relatively small Black business community. The city’s 12% African American population is about half the state’s average.

She has been program coordinator for Eagle Street Market Development Corp. and is active in Black Wall Street, the one-time thriving Black business district that was largely lost to urban renewal. It is now part of the city’s River Arts District, which gives Asheville much of its reputation for diversity. Like hundreds of small-business owners statewide, Young is still finding her legs after the devastating effects of the pandemic. 

Young was born in Salisbury and moved to Asheville at age 11. She rolled out Kente Kitchen in 2014 at Asheville’s Goombay Festival, an annual celebration of African and Caribbean culture in the city’s downtown district. 

“I started with less than $1,000,” she says. She arranged Community Development Financial Institutions financing through the Western Women’s Business Center in Asheville. “They gave me my first business loan for $3,000. I purchased my tent, a two-burner grill and some tables. I made my money back and I realized, ‘I can do this.’” 

Over the years, Young had concluded her ethnicity and appearance held her back. So she threw herself into Kente Kitchen, bolstering its reputation through community involvement. She was on the Buncombe County Nutrition Grant Advisory Board last year and has taught healthy-cooking classes in local schools. 

She cooked for the United Way of Asheville and, amid the pandemic, helped distribute more than 2,000 food boxes to local churches. Through catering at local festivals and other events, she’s found West African cooking spans cultures.

Kente Kitchen food preparation takes place in Blue Ridge Food Ventures, an 11,000-square-foot kitchen and manufacturing co-op. In addition to catering orders, customers can order food online or find Kente serving at community events.

Many of the recipes were learned from her late fiancé’s mother and are African staples, such as thieboudienne, a Senegalese fish and rice dish. But others span cultures. 

She can also supply ingredients such as foo-foo flour, an ingredient ground by African cooks standing at large wooden mortars with pestles.

Eight years after beginning in a festival tent, Young wants to drive Kente Kitchen’s roots deeper into Asheville’s ethnic business gap with a brick-and-mortar location. “We take it step by step, but the way Asheville is growing, we need to accommodate it.”

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