Local entrepreneurs Sean and Emily Mills took some lockdown bad luck and turned it into a thriving business growing mushrooms.
Both were stuck at home during last year’s lockdown; Sean was working as a Raglan Ray White real estate agent and Emily’s job managing Raglan eatery West Coast Taco didn’t survive the lockdown fallout.
From growing the mycelium in agar jars to harvesting the delectable treats, the couple have expertly combined family life and a busy mushroom growing operation.
Despite lockdown setbacks, Mushrooms by the Sea has grown from strength to strength since it was first dreamed up by Sean, and they both now work fulltime in the business.
Once they had a steady supply of the fungi, the couple started selling directly to restaurants in the Waikato. Combining the production side of the business, doing the rounds of the farmers markets and direct selling to restaurants proved too time consuming and in the last six months the hardworking couple have sold directly to Bidfresh.
This latest lockdown has meant a drop in wholesale mushroom supply and cancelled orders, but it did give them the time and opportunity to work on their website, up their social media game and focus on their mushroom grow kits.
“Before the lockdown, we were setting up to do more wholesale but it’s been too difficult with what’s going on currently (Covid lockdowns) and we’re busier now keeping up with our grow kits,” Sean says.
Using social media to advertise, Sean and Emily have managed to pivot the business away from the labour-intensive wholesale mushrooms into mushroom grow kits.
“Because we weren’t constantly running around filling wholesale orders and going to farmers markets, we had time to set up products that we had in the background but hadn’t made live,” Sean says.
With the help of Netflix, the couple had noticed a surge in awareness in all things fungi and the lockdown was the impetus they needed to focus their energies towards marketing the kits.
“Just before this last lockdown we noticed a spike in interest from people at the farmers markets after watching the Fantastic Fungi documentary on Netflix.”
Sean says the lockdown has also given people a lot more time on their hands, and he has noticed people are showing a keen interest in growing their own food.
“We had a big spike in sales a few weeks before this last level 4 lockdown and it all snowballed after that.”
The hard work of the grow kits is done by Sean and Emily; from growing the mycelium in perti dishes to creating the sterile conditions for the mushroom growing substrate requires patience, expertise and the right equipment.
Once that’s done and packaged ready for delivery to the home grower, all that’s needed is a sterilsed sharp blade to open the kit and a daily misting of water.
There are two kinds of mushroom grow kits – the oyster mushroom and the pekepeke-kiore (NZ Lion’s Mane) plus a mushroom log spawn that comes in a jar to grow mushrooms on logs.
Depending on the mushroom, the grow kits can be ready for harvesting in around five to seven days.
The log spawn takes a lot longer, anywhere from 6-12 months before mushrooms begin to fruit in the spring and autumn. Every 2.5cm in diameter of the log generates a year’s worth of growth; 10cm diameter log will typically last for four years.
They also sell gift cards, grow kit monthly subscriptions, mushroom cultures, dehydrated mushroom powder for an intensified flavour boost and mushroom seasoning salt.
The couple have invested about $30,000 of their own savings into buying equipment to kickstart the business.
Buying the bare bones to start with, they have continued to invest in equipment when they’ve needed to take the business to the next level.
And the business has literally taken over their lives and their house; a laboratory is set up in one of the bedrooms in their Raglan home, the laundry is a hot house of large pressure cookers sterilising the material the mushrooms are grown in, another bedroom and nearly every cupboard in the house is taken up with more mushrooms in their various stages, and the kitchen is for the harvesting end of the process.
Outside is a portable unit where the final stage of coaxing this exotic fungal fare to fruition takes place and various patches in the backyard are scattered with the spent mushroom waste which still show signs of the bloom.
The couple are looking forward to a new garage due to be built in their front yard, which will see them get their house back from the multitudes of mushrooms and mushroom paraphernalia encroaching on their personal space.
“That’s another investment that allows us to go up about four times in production, and get some room back in the house,” Sean laughs.
It was a chance meeting with a former Raglan mushroom expert Lennart Prinz that sowed the spores for their business.
“It just felt right and meeting Lenny (Lennart) really set us in motion,” Sean says.
Lockdowns aside, the mushroom venture has not been without its pitfalls; the tricky little fungi do best in ideal conditions, which means creating a sterile environment and getting the temperature and moisture levels just right.
“There’s been a bit of trial and error but I read a lot of the text books to help me out,” Sean says.
Emily reckons it takes brains to do what they do and she credits Sean with that, but she puts a lot of work into the harvesting end of the production.
She’s also the creative mind behind the recipes they share on their website and has plans to open a mushroom food truck to further share the fungi love.
“The oyster mushrooms are so meaty and they don’t shrivel up like other mushrooms. We cooked a meal for four with twenty dollars’ worth of mushrooms and we had plenty of leftovers,” she says.
To get in touch or for more information, check out their website www.mushroomsbythesea.co.nz