Photo: Ben Nachum uses cake boxes to share oyster mushrooms with friends and family. At local grocery stores the mushrooms are sold in plastic shells. Photo by Jill Draper.
Waldo man sprouts gourmet mushroom business
By Jill Draper
Last autumn while traveling through Kazbegi, a small town in Georgia not far from the Russian border, Ben Nachum noticed villagers selling local wine and honey—common fare during his many trips abroad in the past five years. But this time they were also selling local gourmet mushrooms.
Late that night, unable to fall asleep at a small guest house on the side of the snow-capped Caucasus Mountains, the idea of growing mushrooms rolled through Nachum’s head and he found himself researching possibilities on the internet until hours past midnight.
He carried the idea back to Kansas City and began experimenting in a vacant building at Jerusalem Stone, a family business he co-owns with his father, Sam Nachum, at 319 W. 79th Terrace in Waldo.
In the 1990s his father spent many hours recuperating in bed from a broken neck. As he watched the world news focus on angry crowds throwing rocks in Israel (his birth country), he decided to import stone and produce natural tile. The idea was to take something with a negative image and showcase its warmth and beauty. The business now sells this tile primarily to temples, churches, community centers and parks with memorial gardens.
The business has a new division that sprouted up within the last year—Ben’s Mushrooms.
“This was going to be a beautiful Airbnb,” says Nachum, opening the door of a two-story space with a Jerusalem-tiled floor just west of the company’s main building. Instead, it’s a near-sterile facility for some 400 bags filled with hardwood pellets and grain, the substrate mix for mushrooms. Nachum waters the mix, inoculates the bags with spores, and controls the temperature and humidity. Shelf-like formations of mushrooms, which normally grow on the sides of trees, emerge from holes the size of pinpricks.
“I have a very green thumb, but it’s not so easy,” says Nachum, who explains it took months of experimenting to hone his method. “It’s half science, half art. And it takes weeks to see results. The life cycle depends on the species, but it’s generally 6 weeks to 3 months.”
He has grown 17 different types of mushrooms, but regular varieties are oyster (blue, pink and branched) and elm.
“At a time when we’re all cooking a lot, mushrooms are a fun treat,” says Nachum, who particularly enjoys them sautéed in olive oil with sea salt or stewed with Tunisian spices. He also mentions their health benefits and claims they’re loaded with B vitamins, calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium and zinc.
Nachum harvests about 10-12 pounds a day, packaging them in plastic shells for sale at Cosentino’s Market in Brookside, Fareway (the former McGonigle’s) and Nature’s Own Market, where they go for $11-12 per pound. He also sells to restaurants like The Pressed Penny Tavern in Westport. A couple of friends help with the business, including Michael Scanlon, a private chef with Lon Lane’s Inspired Occasions, a local catering company.
In the last few years, after working in Jerusalem Stone’s warehouse, fabrication shop and office, Nachum began traveling for months at a time to check on quarries and shipping details in Israel and Palestine. On the way there and back he often took an extra month to explore other parts of the world. That’s how he found himself on the side of a mountain at the intersection of Eastern Europe and Asia thinking about mushrooms.
Because of the COVID-19 virus, his travel plans are limited now. In the future, he might look into opening a store that fronts Jerusalem Stone’s property on Wornall Road. But he’s in no hurry. Growing mushrooms for resale is much easier, he says. He also wants to inoculate his family’s 20-acre farm in Lacey, Kansas, with morel mushrooms.
“I’m always open to new ideas,” he says.