Mike Kempenich toyed with the idea of incorporating the term mycology, the branch of biology dealing with fungi, into the name of his business, but only briefly. "It was a neat play on my name, but no one knew the term and [therefore]thought I was vain," he said with a laugh.
Although the retail store became Forest to Fork, Kempenich is known to his customers and students, as the "Gentleman Forager," a particularly colorful image brought about when he grabbed one of the suit jackets destined for the Goodwill out of his car’s trunk during a cool afternoon on one of his foraging trips, and his wife exclaimed, "You look like a Gentleman Forager."
Kempenich was a corporate headhunter for 16 years, and right about the time the dotcom bubble was bursting, "I had a boss that gave me an opportunity to look for a new opportunity," he said wryly.
At the time he thought he’d just move on to that next opportunity, but soon discovered the jobs at the level he needed were few and far between. "I found myself in the woods thinking about what I could do," he said, and his thoughts turned to "why can’t I buy a chanterelle that I can find in the woods?"
He spent the next year and a half learning about mushrooms. "I talked a buddy of mine into turning his basement into a lab," he said. Growing mushrooms, he found was a bit like being a dairy farmer, "they always need tending." The differentiator in his business and others is that "we warehouse nothing. They are in the hands of the consumers within 24 hours," he said about his mushrooms.
Kempenich turned mushrooms into a successful wholesale business, and he went into a retail space at Keg and Case because they were willing to give him a "Willy Wonkish-type store" where he could grow mushrooms in public. The impressive tower of mushrooms is "Facebook-worthy and promotes our brand," he said.
Their 10-by-10 stall also educates people on mushrooms, and before the pandemic made sampling a no-go, employees cooked mushrooms for added sales power.
Now that Keg and Case has turned the market "inside out," they’ve set up a booth in the parking lot, where they continue their education, adding an eclectic line-up of music on the weekends, as well as employing chefs to do cooking demonstrations. "We didn’t go without impact, we lost revenue," he said, adding, but "we didn’t have to lay anyone off."
For restaurants and grocers, the pandemic shone a spotlight on the need to have a robust local supply chain. Forest to Fork cultivates about 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of mushrooms a month from their tower at Keg and Case. While the building was off-limits to most vendors when it first closed, he told management they had to be allowed in because the mushrooms don’t stop growing. "Because of COVID, Kowalski’s offered to buy whatever we produced," he said. "They stepped up to purchase, so we didn’t get interrupted."
Kempenich is now packaging his exotic mushrooms for grocery sales. Currently most mushrooms, outside button and portabella, are sold loose in bins in grocery stores. That’s because mushrooms will grow on any type of paper product and start to look like mold, he said.
In order to grow his business, he is now in the process of coming up with a proprietary packaging that is biodegradable and "full of QR codes and recipes" for more information on the product. In addition to mushrooms, they’re selling ramps, fiddleheads and other difficult to source items chefs and home cooks crave. Most of their sales currently are local, but the packaging will allow they to expand into other nearby states.
Talking to him the first week after Keg and Case opened up their parking lot for social-distanced dining, he said they did surprisingly well. "Either there’s going to be lots of people having fun, or we’ll be eating a lot of our own food," he said.