This spring, ioby and Eastern Market are partnering to present the Eastern Market Growing Communities Matching Grant Challenge. We’re offering 17 awesome local food entrepreneurs the chance to double the donations made to their projects on ioby’s website between now and April 3—dollar for dollar, up to $250 per donation, and up to $3,000 total. Here’s a closer look at one of fabulous projects getting underway now.
“I think Americans got their ‘myco-phobia’ from the British,” says Chris Carrier, half of the team behind the Detroit Mushroom Factory, about Westerners’ fear of mushrooms. “We don’t have the same history of foraging for mushrooms that people from Eastern Europe or Japan do, and mushrooms certainly aren’t as prominent in our cooking.”
“Sometimes people walk into our 100-year-old house, where mushroom production is going on in every room, and they get a little weirded out!” says Deana Wojcik, Chris’s partner.
Indeed, fantastical-looking fungi can appear more like something out of Dr. Seuss than an item you’d want on your dinner plate. But it’s Deana and Chris’s mission to dispel the weirdness around mushrooms and spread the word about the good nutrition, flexible farming options, and rich culinary possibilities they offer. The Detroit Mushroom Factory, their urban farm, grows several types of edible and medicinal mushrooms, year-round, on recycled materials produced locally—like sawdust from a furniture maker and grain from a brewery. Then they sell them at Eastern Market on Saturdays and to local shops and eateries.
They got the idea to build a mushroom business after taking a social entrepreneurship class a few years ago at Detroit’s Build Institute. Chris’s career background is in software engineering, and Deana’s is in education. Together, they wanted to start something that could make money, do good, and draw from their past experience. Initially they landed on the idea of teaching code to young people, but soon realized that not only was that too similar to their previous day jobs, “it’s also more fun to work on something that many people are unfamiliar with,” Deana says. “A lot of us approach STEM with baggage: we already think of ourselves as math and science people—or not. But mushrooms are new and fascinating! It’s easier for people to say, ‘I know nothing about this. Teach me!’ As an educator, I love that openness.”
Currently, Deana and Chris produce mostly fan-shaped oyster mushrooms (which Chris describes as “most people’s introduction to the gourmet mushroom world—which is really everything beyond the white buttons in the salad bar!”); a spiky puffball one called lion’s mane; and a stick-shaped one called reishi which they package for use as coffee stirrers. While many of their customers (particularly people without access to quality health care) key in on mushrooms’ purported medicinal benefits, Chris and Deana are careful not to over-promise.
“We’re not doctors or scientists,” Chris says. “We can attest that mushrooms are high in protein, low in fat, and sometimes contain other nutritional value like B vitamins. And they taste good! But we just talk about them as something that’s healthy to eat, not as a cure for anything.”
After about three years in business, Deana and Chris are experiencing every entrepreneur’s ideal problem: customers’ demand is exceeding their supply, both in terms of volume and variety. To keep up with all the locally-grown mushrooms Rose’s Fine Food wants for their broth bowls, Sister Pie wants for their savory scones, and The Farmer’s Hand wants to stock on their shelves, Detroit Mushroom Factory will be expanding into a formerly obsolete warehouse near Chris and Deana’s home in Detroit’s North End. The pair is also raising money to buy more robust equipment like a high-pressure misting kit and a commercial refrigerator. Together, these changes will mean a hefty increase in production capabilities, customer satisfaction, educational opportunities, and community building.
“We’ve moved around a lot as adults, and it can be hard to meet people,” Deana says. “The Factory has been a great way for us to find community here. The degree to which we’ve been been embraced, as business owners and as people, has been exciting and surprising. But Detroit is a very creative and collaborative place. When we started introducing ourselves as mushroom farmers, that’s when the good conversations really started.”
She and Chris are talking with administrators at the elementary school near their new space about offering field trips and hands-on mushroom workshops to students, and they want to expand into other green markets across the city. They’ve gotten interest from beyond Detroit’s borders—like fine dining restaurants in Ann Arbor. “But before we start reaching out, we want to make sure that every Detroit restaurant and resident who wants Detroit-grown mushrooms is getting them,” Deana says.
“We’re in the right place to do this,” she continues. “I don’t think we would have had the same success somewhere else, and we want to give back by being a source of education, training, and eventually jobs. For now, we hope that providing fresh, healthy, affordable produce to our neighbors is a good way to say thank you.”
Learn more about Detroit Mushroom Factory on their campaign page, and check out all the Eastern Market Growing Communities Matching Grant Challenge winners. If you see something that moves you, remember your supporting dollars go twice as far until April 3!