Sonoma County is home to fine wine, an abundance of local produce, generations-old dairy farms, and surprisingly, to Gourmet Mushrooms, which grows more varieties of organic culinary and nutraceutical mushrooms than any farm in America.
For 42 years, Gourmet Mushrooms as been producing premium mushroom products used by the world’s finest chefs. They harvest eight varieties of organic specialty mushrooms for America’s finest restaurants, specialty food wholesalers and gourmet grocers.
The company was founded in 1977 in Sebastopol and was the first to commercially grow Shiitake mushrooms in the United States. Initially, the farm grew just a few hundred pounds a week. In the following years, after the expansion to the new Gravenstein Highway facility, the company stopped producing Shiitake when they adopted bottle cultivation in place of bag cultivation and have since expanded into seven other Certified Organic varieties including trumpet royale, forest nameko, nebrodini bianco, velvet pioppini, alba clamshell, and brown clamshell.
Customers in Sonoma County and as far as away Florida, New York, Maine, and Texas can rely on a fresh-picked harvest year-round.
Founders David Law and Malcolm Clark first started cultivating fungi in Sonoma County on a former chicken ranch. Gourmet Mushrooms began as a small farm selling directly to the restaurants, which flourished in the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Law came from Hong Kong to attend the University of Oregon and received a degree in biology. He said that because he, unfortunately, couldn’t get into medical school he followed the same route as a few of his friends and got an MBA from the University of Wisconsin.
“Along the way, I also got a Master of Science in Real Estate because I wanted to focus on urban economics,” Law said. “
In 1976, a chance meeting with Malcolm Clark during a visit to his brother’s house in Los Angeles changed the trajectory of Law’s life.
“Malcolm turned out to be my partner for 30 years,” Law said. “He was an Englishman living in Canada, a biologist, and a judo black belt. He played judo with a lot of 2nd and 3rd generation Japanese and with this group of friends he started a mushroom farm in Toronto.”
The initial venture growing shitake did not succeed due to problems with contamination and the economic downfall resulting from the OPEC oil crisis. So, Clark began exploring options to move the business to California.
Law flew out to California to meet him and to see what the prospect was. The next year, together, they opened Gourmet Mushrooms in Sebastopol.
For the first decade, Law lived in San Francisco and worked at Merrill Lynch in San Francisco and would drive up to Sonoma County each weekend to work on the business. For 12 years he didn’t have a weekend off.
He said youthful stupidity drove him forward.
“We were undercapitalized to start, and things evolved very slowly,” Law said. “I focused on our line of health products and my partner Malcolm focused on growing the mushrooms. We slowly grew.”
Law’s real estate background enabled him to tie up an additional piece of property in Sonoma County.
“During that time, land was transitioning from orchards to winegrapes and the apple market was down,” Law said. “I got a great price on an old orchard. I sold half of the property to Merry Edwards Winery and built our own facility on the other side.”
Gourmet Mushrooms now occupies a 60,000 square-foot facility and produces about 1 million pounds of mushrooms a year, plus another 1.5 million pounds from a second farm in Michigan.
The fresh mushroom division, Mycopia Mushrooms, has earned its reputation as the premier grower of top quality, flavorful forest mushrooms that are “no longer wild, but far from tame.”
Justin Reyes, who has worked for Gourmet Mushrooms for 8 years, is the sales and marketing director but said that he hasn’t always been a mushroom person.
“Previously, I worked in the wine industry, but have always been interested in different food systems,” Reyes said. “I wanted to learn more about foraging food and stumbled on Gourmet Mushrooms. The place is older than I am and I’ve been in Sonoma County all my life, but had no idea it existed.”
Now, he is a board member for the Sonoma County Mycological Association and said he brings Gourmet Mushrooms’ Trumpet Royale mushrooms to barbeque at all the gatherings he goes to. They’re a hit.
Reyes explained that mushrooms have umami, which is a savory flavor usually associated with meat. He added that mushrooms not only taste good but that they are an excellent source of vitamin D, B and potassium, and the antioxidant selenium.
Have you taken a walk in the woods recently? If so, beneath your feet, under every step you take is an intricate web of mycelium. Reyes explained that mycelium is to a mushroom as an apple tree is to an apple.
“Mycelium is a fungusits own kingdom of life,” Reyes said. “It’s not a plant nor an animal and it is more closely related to animals than it is to plants. It has no chlorophyll so there is no photosynthesis and therefore, it needs food from another source to grow.”
In the wild, forest mushrooms typically grow on the sides of trees or the forest floor. At Gourmet Mushrooms, though, the mushroom growing process begins and ends in a plastic bottle. This method of growing was developed in Japan. Mushrooms are grown in bottles on large racks in temperature-controlled rooms.
“We try to mimic spring and summer, which are good conditions for the mycelium to grow,” Reyes said.
The plastic bottles are filled with substrate, which is food for the mushrooms and is a mixture of wood shavings and agricultural byproducts. Then, mycelium colonizes the bottle. It takes between two and four months, depending on the species, from when the bottle is seeded until the mushrooms are harvested.
Reyes explained that other mushroom farms grow mushrooms in single-use plastic bags.
“We have bottles in use that are 10 years old,” Reyes said. “Our method helps limit water use and is sustainable.”
After the mushrooms are grown and harvested, the spent substrate is recycled and turned into compost that is highly prized and used at local farms and wineries.
Although the company has undergone several large changes, Gourmet Mushrooms has continually used this winning recipe to grow premium mushrooms for decades.
In 2007, Law’s partner Clark retired. Soon after, a formidable competitor in Michigan reached out to form a strategic alliance and a San Francisco-based company contacted Law to produce Mushroom-growing kits. The two offers worked in tandem and Gourmet Mushrooms started producing mushrooms in Michigan as well as Sonoma County.
However, in 2014, Law’s new prospective partners said they wanted to throw in the towel. The owners of the Michigan facility offered to sell the property to Law. Fueled by his desire to keep up with the growing demand for specialty mushrooms he decided to purchase it.
Law said that 2016 was a tough year.
“We made a very large investment,” Law said. “Thankfully, we signed several new contracts, which helped with cash flow.”
At the same time, one of the company’s best customers grew at a very rapid pace. Had they not purchased the Michigan facility they would have lost out on the opportunity to match the increasing demand for mushrooms because they lacked capacity at their Sonoma County location.
“Everything worked miraculously,” Law said. “It was a mushroom miracle.”
By 2017 they were back in the black.
Today, the company has 75 employees at the California farm, which has 65,000 square feet and about 80 at the Michigan Farm, which has 210,000 square feet.
Law said that specialty mushrooms are one of the fastest-growing segments in produce and that he hopes people will learn to see mushrooms differently and without fear.
“Looking at our worldwide population growth, you really have to wonder how we will feed all these people,” Law said. “Our mission today is very simple. We want to promote the mushroom kingdom and encourage people to consume more mushrooms.”
The company is constantly innovating and looking for ways to use mycelium also as a building material. Currently, they are working on a project making biodegradable packaging material out of mycelium for a New York-based company and they are also working with another company to produce mushroom based vegan leather.
“We have the raw materials and we are helping different companies to set up their own operations,” Law said.
Law admits that he could have never dreamed he would be at the helm of this unique business venture.
“I’m having fun,” Law said. “Yes, we have a lot going on, but I think we are sitting on something that is good and exciting, so it’s not a grind because we are constantly innovating.”
He said that the company is a different company than it was ten years ago, five years ago, and even two years ago.
“I see the potential for the company to grow many folds,” Law said. “We are in a very interesting space, promoting this big platform from right here in Sonoma County. We want to continue to sell our mushrooms and to bring healthy food to everyone.”
Although the bulk of sales are catered to fine restaurants through distributors across the U.S., Mycopia mushrooms are available at grocery stores nationwide and have been featured in the organics section of major chains like Safeway, Whole Foods and Hy-Vee. Locally, they are also available at Oliver’s Marketplace and Andy’s Produce
You can purchase mushrooms in gift baskets as well as growth kits in-store and online. To learn more about Gourmet Mushrooms, purchase their products or to check out mushroom recipes for appetizers, breakfast, desserts, soups, entrees and more visit their website https://www.mycopia.com/