Welcome to Out of the Kitchen, our ongoing exploration of the relationships that build and sustain the food industry. This year, we’re traveling the country to look at the changing landscape of food markets. Hyper-local markets—filled with myriad grocery, retail, and restaurant options like the ones found in Europe—are on the rise. These markets benefit from their interconnected buying power but operate like small, independent businesses, allowing them to focus on quality ingredients, culinary innovation, and intimate, personal customer service. Through quality, personal touches, and exceptional product, these new food halls are revolutionizing retail one transaction at a time.
John Garrone likes to explain that a mushroom arises from a very specific, and delicate, set of circumstances. The growing medium, the inoculation of the spores, the humidity, temperature, light, and time all have to be exactly right before a mushroom sprouts.
The same truth applies to a successful business: It has to be the right time, the right product, and the right location. And most importantly, it has to be the right customers. And with its brick-and-mortar store in San Francisco’s Ferry Building, Far West Fungi has sprouted.
“San Francisco’s a very special place,” founder and owner Garrone says. “We’ve got those heavy Asian and European influences, and the San Francisco knowledge of foods, and that’s why we’re able to do what we do. I don’t think we’d be able to do this in Boise, Idaho, or anywhere else.”
Photo: Ashley Batz
Garrone was still working nights as a dispatcher for the San Francisco Police Department when he started the business with his wife Toby in the early ’80s. The couple started out selling mail-order mushroom-growing kits, expanded to growing their own mushrooms for sale at a dozen farmers’ markets around the region—basically three variations on your basic button mushrooms at first.
“Then we started looking at brown ones and then portobellos, criminis,” he says.
Now the company grows its mushrooms on an eight-acre farm with 60,000 square feet of indoor growing rooms, and customers know it’s the place to go when they want something a little more special than button mushrooms for dinner. It offers 10 edible varieties of mushrooms, and three medicinal. Far West grows five different varieties of oyster mushrooms, but shiitakes are the best sellers.
There were obstacles along the way, of course. For one, the business had to clear out of one farm entirely because the smell of the compost was bothering the neighbors. But the next generation of Garrones and even John Garrone’s mother-in-law got into the business, becoming regular presences at the markets, and establishing Far West Fungi as something of a farmers-market empire.
“The markets are a lot of fun to work with,” Garrone says. “People come and really appreciate your work, and they give you money for everything you do all week. You develop a relationship with them. There are customers I see a lot more than I see my friends.”
In April 2004, Far West opened its first brick-and-mortar shop inside the Ferry Building, but it took some adjusting to a new kind of customer base.
Photo: Ashley Batz
“There were very few places I could really do this, and we thought it would be a great way to showcase our products,” Garrone says. “The people inside are a bit more demanding. They expect to be served, while at the farmers market I snap open a bag and hand it to them and tell them to help themselves.”
But the part of the business that Garrone savors most—personally making sure each customer gets the most out of his or her mushrooms—is still strong.
“For us to be really successful with specialty mushrooms, and also introduce the idea of fungi as good food, there has to be a lot of communication,” he says. “When we started, and still today, it’s all about, ‘I’ve never seen anything quite like this, how do you prepare it?’ And I explain that each mushroom has its own texture, and each culture has its own way of doing its mushrooms. Our business is people coming in continually asking us to come with basic ideas of what to do with their mushrooms—and you get these ideas from customers as well. So there’s a definite relationship between the customer and what I’m doing, and I’m enjoying it.”
And every year, the Garrones try out new varieties. Sometimes they’re great successes, like the Asian king trumpets (“Cut them really thin, they come out like a chow fun noodle,” Garrone suggests). Sometimes… well, sometimes they’re just not.
Photo: Ashley Batz
“A couple years ago we tried the stropharia mushroom, native to the West Coast, purple-topped and they have a white stem with veins that turn blackish and rough when they dry out,” he says. “At best they tasted like an old potato. Our immediate response when people asked how to cook the stropharia was, ‘You can put it in a stew—it’ll cover up all the flavor.’”
But there are plenty of great-tasting mushrooms Garrone spends all day talking about with his customers.
“Morels are all about ready to come out, and I’m kind of excited about that,” he says. “Morels hold up really nice to strong flavors, traditionally with Madeira or red wine, and often a little cream or half-and-half and warmed up at the end. Or oftentimes I’ll go into a room and just pick some gorgeous shiitakes—we just started a new strain from Asia, a drier, denser strain with a stronger flavor, a woodsiness. I usually make a nice buttery sauce and saute the mushrooms—I like my shiitakes pretty well-done, cooked with a little sherry or white wine to set them off, with roasted sesame seeds over pasta.”
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from Bon Appétit http://www.bonappetit.com/people/out-of-the-kitchen/article/far-west-fungi-ferry-building