Food | Oregon

Finding Money In Mushrooms

OPB | Jan. 7, 2014 midnight | Updated: Jan. 7, 2014 12:52 p.m.

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Ryan Bubriski and Will Fortini of the Portland Mushroom Company hold clusters of just-picked oyster mushrooms, grown in the basement of their rental house in Sellwood-Moreland and sold to restaurant chefs and at farmers markets for up to $10 a pound.

Ryan Bubriski and Will Fortini of the Portland Mushroom Company hold clusters of just-picked oyster mushrooms, grown in the basement of their rental house in Sellwood-Moreland and sold to restaurant chefs and at farmers markets for up to $10 a pound.

Dan Sadowsky / OPB

When Ryan Bubriski tells people he grows mushrooms in the basement of a rental house he shares with four other men in their early 20s, he’s usually greeted with raised eyebrows.

“People say, ‘Oh, are they special mushrooms?’” says Bubriski. “We get that a lot. It’s almost unavoidable.”

The variety he grows is, in fact, oyster mushrooms, and they are special enough to command up to $10 a pound from shoppers at farmers markets and chefs at a handful of Portland’s finest dining establishments, including Clarklewis and Papa Haydn.

That, too, raises eyebrows.

This month, the business Bubriski formed with two friends from Lewis & Clark College will expand production fourfold by shifting some of the growing operation from the basement to a specially outfitted, 40-foot-long shipping container parked in the driveway.

Ryan Bubriski opens a shipping container that would soon house most of the growing operation of the Portland Mushroom Company, multiplying their production of oyster mushrooms by a factor of four. The one-time refrigerated container was retrofitted with an electrical panel and air exchanger.

Ryan Bubriski opens a shipping container that would soon house most of the growing operation of the Portland Mushroom Company, multiplying their production of oyster mushrooms by a factor of four. The one-time refrigerated container was retrofitted with an electrical panel and air exchanger.

Dan Sadowsky / OPB

The move will allow the Portland Mushroom Company to satisfy new customers such as Ox and Andina and, if all goes according to plan, enable Bubriski, 23, and Will Fortini, 24, to drop their part-time jobs landscaping yards and delivering pizzas, respectively. (The third partner, Zac Tobias, 23, plans to continue working full-time as a neuroscience lab tech at Lewis & Clark.)

The company’s long-term goal is to fill a niche in the local mushroom business between run-of-the-mill varieties such as buttons and creminis and expensive foraged fungi such as truffles and morels.

“Eventually, we’d like to provide a complete suite of high-end, cultivatable mushrooms to restaurants,” Bubriski says.

Hooked On Mushrooms

The Vermont native traces the 13-month-old company’s roots to a mushroom-hunting trip to Tillamook County during his freshman year at Lewis & Clark College, where all three founders graduated in 2012 with bachelor’s degrees in biology. That 2009 outing led Bubriski to concentrate his studies in fungi and work in the laboratory of Peter Kennedy, then an assistant professor of biology specializing in the interplay between trees and fungi growing underneath the forest floor.

Through his work, Bubriski met an Oregon State University graduate student who’d helped set up an oyster mushroom operation in Santa Cruz. “He told me it was a low-space, low-work, high-yield situation,” Bubriski recalls.

After that July 2012 conversation, Bubriski mentioned starting an oyster-mushroom business to housemates Fortini and Tobias, who eagerly hopped aboard. “We had an extra room in the basement,” he says, “so we just started slowly experimenting.”

A ‘Low-Tech’ Basement Operation

Will Fortini (left) and Ryan Bubriski of the Portland Mushroom Company inspect the oyster mushrooms growing in the basement of their Sellwood-Moreland rental house. The temperature of the 10-foot-by-13-foot room hovers around 62 degrees Fahrenheit, and the relative humidity is kept at nearly 100 percent.

Will Fortini (left) and Ryan Bubriski of the Portland Mushroom Company inspect the oyster mushrooms growing in the basement of their Sellwood-Moreland rental house. The temperature of the 10-foot-by-13-foot room hovers around 62 degrees Fahrenheit, and the relative humidity is kept at nearly 100 percent.

Dan Sadowsky / OPB

Since then, that white-walled, 10-foot-by-13-foot room in the basement of their rented Sellwood-Moreland home has served as the company’s principal grow room. Considering that mushrooms are usually associated with a damp forest floor, the room is surprisingly clean and scent-free. A few dozen four-gallon buckets are neatly stacked four or five high. They’re drilled with 5/8-inch holes, out of which poke mushrooms in various stages of growth.

A small Vornado fan sits on the ground, whirring quietly, while a residential humidifier pumps out a continuous puff of steam. A portable space heater keeps the temperature around 62 degrees, as indicated on a monitor atop one of the buckets, which also reports the room’s CO2 level and relative humidity.

The process actually starts in the garage, where bales of straw sit against the walls and a fridge holds 21-pound bags of spawn — millet grain that’s been sterilized and seeded with mycelium, the part of the fungus that eventually fruits into mushrooms.

The spawn and straw are mixed together and placed into the buckets – but not before the straw is pasteurized by putting it into a barrel, adding water, and heating it over a fire using a contraption Fortini designed and rigged up for $250. It sits on a cement pad just outside the basement door behind their house.

“It’s definitely low-tech,” says Bubriski.

Oyster mushrooms fruit out of 5/8-inch holes drilled in four-gallon plastic buckets filled with straw. They are best picked when their caps start to flatten out, according to Will Fortini of the Portland Mushroom Company.

Oyster mushrooms fruit out of 5/8-inch holes drilled in four-gallon plastic buckets filled with straw. They are best picked when their caps start to flatten out, according to Will Fortini of the Portland Mushroom Company.

Dan Sadowsky / OPB

But the resulting mushrooms won over chefs at Portland restaurants that feature specialty mushrooms on their menus.

“We were getting mushrooms cheaper from somewhere else, but it was good to promote the neighborhood and it was a really good product,” says Chef Gabe Gabreski at A Cena in Sellwood, who orders 10 pounds a week to use in pasta dishes, pickle plates and antipastos offered at the Italian restaurant.

The variety’s fragility gives the Portland Mushroom Company a market advantage. Gabreski says buying local mushrooms means he doesn’t receive them in wasteful shrink-wrap packaging. He also likes knowing he won’t have to clean the mushrooms of sawdust, which some growers use as a substrate.

Alma Mater Assists Business

Even after landing a few customers, Bubriski says the company still felt more like a hobby to the three biologists. But last year, the trio received vital business-development help from a venture competition Lewis & Clark sponsored for students and recent graduates. They received $2,000 in funding that they used to upgrade equipment, received mentoring from a chief executive and attended a series of daylong workshops on topics ranging from marketing to accounting.

In October, they won the contest’s $20,000 first prize. Bubriski says they haven’t decided exactly how to spend the money, but know it will go toward “getting everything more efficient so we can do it on a bigger scale.”

Will Fortini (left) of Encinitas, Calif., and Ryan Bubriski of Shaftsbury, Vt., were freshman-year roommates at Lewis & Clark College in 2009. They went into the mushroom business with classmate Zac Tobias of San Diego after all three graduated in 2012.

Will Fortini (left) of Encinitas, Calif., and Ryan Bubriski of Shaftsbury, Vt., were freshman-year roommates at Lewis & Clark College in 2009. They went into the mushroom business with classmate Zac Tobias of San Diego after all three graduated in 2012.

Dan Sadowsky / OPB

Scaling up includes buying at least one more shipping container so they can devote one to incubating and the other to fruiting (the two stages require different temperatures and light conditions). And, since there’s no more room in the driveway, they’re investigating whether to move the containers to a climate-controlled warehouse or to Green Anchors, a former shipyard turned eco-industrial business park in St. John’s.

Minimizing its environmental impact is a big part of the company’s mission. It gives away as compost the organic straw used as a substrate, for example, and cultivates mushrooms in reusable buckets rather than the more commonly used disposable plastic bags. And it’s moving into refurbished shipping containers partly to “turn unproductive, post-industrial resources into sources of fresh produce for the city,” according to its website.

What’s more, Bubriski says the company has experimented with growing their mushrooms in spent coffee grounds from local cafes. “We’ve done minimal trials with that, and had good luck with it, but we want to have the collection network set up to do it,” he says.

Using spent brewer’s grain as a growing substrate is another possibility, says Bubriski. So is building a laboratory in yet another shipping container so they can cultivate their own mushroom spawn and inoculate their own substrate, making them less reliant on suppliers.

Ultimately, Bubriski says he and his colleagues want to capture “that middle ground of cultivatable, high-quality mushrooms,” including maitake, lion’s mane and enoki mushrooms, in addition to oysters.

To Bubriski and his partners, those are special mushrooms, indeed.

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