Breaking the mold! Farm grows exotic mushrooms in Bed-Stuy factory

A lion’s share: Angela Watts, the mastermind behind the science of mushroom growing, and her partner Jennifer Macdonald have moved from incubating mushroom spawn in closets and under beds to maintaining a nearly full-fledged business in the Pfizer building.
Photo by Stefano Giovannini

Their business is ’shrooming!

Two former corporate types are growing mushrooms inside an old Bedford-Stuyvesant factory, where they plan to cultivate an edible empire with an obscure variety called lion’s mane. Weird fungi was once a tough sell, they say, but the recent trend towards local, small-batch, eco-friendly foods has turned them into a real growth industry.

“Even a couple years ago people weren’t looking for more exotic mushrooms than maitake or shiitake,” said Jennifer Macdonald, who co-founded Shroom, which she runs out or the old Pfizer building on Flushing Avenue. “All of those elements come together to make it possible to have a sustainable business at this time and this space.”

Macdonald and her business partner Angela Watts first started growing lion’s mane — a long, stringy variety with a meaty texture, used in both Chinese cooking and medicine — under their beds and in closets of the Manhattan home they shared in 2011.

They both worked in finance at the time, but wanted to do something to make the world a better place, and Watts became obsessed with mycology when she realized the spongy growths aren’t just great in a risotto — they can also soak up pollution and cure what ails you.

Watts said she was particularly inspired after she gave her sick parents capsules of dried lion’s mane and reishi mushroom powder, and their health improved dramatically.

“I was so excited,” she said. “I felt that I wouldn’t be able to sleep until I had a grow-room filled with lion’s mane.”

Mushooms are also an incredibly sustainable food, as they can grow in coffee grounds, newspapers, or rotting logs, they said. Shroom is cultivating its fungi in bags of sawdust from local carpenters.

“When you think about it, mushrooms are some of the world’s greatest recyclers,” Macdonald said.

Farming indoors means Macdonald and Watts can also control the humidity and other growing conditions of their crops. They could grow up to 800 pounds of lion’s mane a week in their space, but are currently producing 100 pounds while they refine their product with local chefs, their primary market.

“We just want to get it right, and first it’s becoming the number one provider of lion’s mane in the Tri-State area,” said Macdonald.

But the pair don’t plan on stopping there. They have also experimented with different strands of ’shrooms in a field they call “microfarmocology” — growing mushrooms while researching their medicinal and environmental potential. They eventually hope to work with local governments to get plastic-eating fungi into the landfills.

But first they have to focus on breaking into the business. Growing mushrooms in your closet is easy, they say, but doing it on an industrial scale involves a lot of groping around in the dark.

“You have to have unbelievable passion and determination and not be stopped when you discover the humidity controls weren’t going to work the way you thought they were going to work, or the mushrooms don’t like a particular type of sawdust that you thought they would,” Macdonald said.

A lion’s share: Manhattan residents Jennifer Macdonald and Angela Watts grow lion’s mane mushrooms at the old Pfizer building in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
Photo by Stefano Giovannini

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