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Mountain Businesses A Big Hit In America's Festival Scene

Michael Sanders
More than 65,000 people from around the world are estimated to have attended this year's Bonnaroo, held in Manchester, Tennessee, from June 8-11.

Western North Carolina businesses are making a name for themselves in the American music festival scene. 

Styled after the musical festivals of the 1960's, Bonnaroo becomes the center of the Bohemian south every June. The event gathers an eclectic collection of musical and stage performances, panels on social activism, and hundreds of vendors from across the United States...many of which hail from Western North Carolina.

“We love Bonnaroo because, first of all, it’s a really good chance for us to put our product in front of seventy, eighty thousand people at a time, which is sort of indispensable,” that’s Mary Lynne Schroeder, of In Blue Handmade—an online company based out of Buncombe County, which makes personalized leather goods, like journals, flasks, wallets and bags. This is her fifth year setting up shop at Bonnaroo as a vendor. “So, for me it’s really important for me because A; I get kind of weird when I’m just on the computer all the time, I need to interact, and B; it’s good to get out there and let people touch and actually look at the product. It’s motivating and inspiring.”

Perhaps it’s the reputation mountain communities have cultivated over the years for their arts and crafts, as Schroeder says there’s never just one vendor at the festival from Western North Carolina, and sales are always good. It can cost upwards of ten thousand dollars to set up a tent at the festival.

Will you come back next year?

“Sure, yeah. I’m coming back every year, as long as they’ll have me. Asheville is just kind of special and magic in that way. It’s such an ambitious, artistic, entrepreneurial community. I think that something like this you really have to work hard to set up at this. Your inventory has to be really great. But it still maintains that Asheville love vibe. Everything’s handmade, people are working really hard and working together. It’s kind of the perfect place for us.”

Credit Michael Sanders
Downtown Asheville retailer Indo has set up shop at Bonnaroo for each of the festival's last sixteen years.

Just along this one strip of festival vendors, there were three others from the mountains. Most of them were too busy for an interview, but Shayna McLaughlin of downtown Asheville retail store Indo, echoed Schroeder.

“We definitely squeeze some fun into it. Every festival I’ve ever gone to work with them, I get to see a lot of musicians over the years that I wouldn’t have known who they were if I didn’t get to hear it from where I was standing.”

This was Indo’s sixteenth year at Bonnaroo, and according to McLaughlin, the business has secured numerous return customers at the festival in that time.

“I think that Indo’s built their own kind of reputation based on their merchandise. It has a lot to do with the festival culture too.”

But it wasn’t just crafts vendors representing the mountains at the festival. 

Credit Michael Sanders
Mountain brewing has certainly made a name for itself: Nantahala Brewing Company owner Joe Roland (left) discusses the emerging craft beer industry in Western North Carolina with Asheville Joe America (right), and Kevin Selvy (center), of Colorado's Crazy Mountain Brewing.

With the craft beer industry taking off in recent years, Western North Carolina breweries have now found their products in the festival’s spotlight as well. So much so, in fact, that entire panel discussions on the industry—complete with beer tastings— were held at this year’s Bonnaroo. The discussion featured Joe Roland, owner of Nantahala Brewing Company in Bryson City, and it was moderated by none other than Asheville’s own Asheville Joe America.

I'm curious about what you're experiencing now in the craft brewing movement. I’m from Asheville, North Carolina...

“I think it’s a double edged sword. In NC has some really weird rules one of the ones is the cap on how much you can distribute.. NC is capped at 25,000 barrells, and it sounds like a whole lot of beers, and it is a lot of beer. And we really couldn’t get there by focusing on our local market. But when you get outside that home market it becomes a bigger challenge because you really need that ability to distribute through someone else, unless you’re willing to invest the money to do it yourself, which is a huge investment. So you got to pick: do you want to make beer, or do you want to distribute beer?”

After the panel, Asheville Joe was able to comment on the rising popularity of mountain brewing.

“It’s a wonderful experience, and it’s not beyond my expectation," he said. "Asheville, and North Carolina in general has a great representation for craft breweries. They’ve done good work on that legislation that makes it more possible for craft breweries to succeed. It doesn’t surprise me. It does build me up and make me feel good. I’d go even further to say that Asheville in general, represents hard at Bonnaroo, man. Mostly in this very positive way of people that are community minded, proactive and getting good work done.”

The one thing all of these mountain businesses had in common was that attending festivals like this one was vital to the success of their brands, and most of them indicated that they would be setting up shop at others down the road, after feeling the love and good vibes at Bonnaroo, this year. 

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