Forest to Fork’s ‘Willy Wonkish’ Booth in Keg & Case
Mike Kempenich toyed with the idea of incorporating the term mycology, the branch of biology dealing with fungi, into the name of his business, but only briefly. “It was a neat play on my name, but no one knew the term and [therefore] thought I was vain,” he said with a laugh.
Although his retail store in Keg and Case became Forest to Fork, Kempenich is known to his customers and students, as the “Gentleman Forager,” a particularly colorful image brought about when he grabbed a suit jackets destined for the Goodwill out of his car’s trunk during a cool afternoon on one of his foraging trips, and his wife exclaimed dryly, "You look like a gentleman forager."
Morels in the wild.
For 16 years, Kempenich was a corporate headhunter, and right about the time the dotcom bubble was bursting, “I had a boss that gave me an opportunity to look for a new opportunity,” he said wryly.
At the time he thought he’d just move on to the next opportunity, but the jobs at the level he needed were few and far between. “I found myself in the woods thinking about what I could do,” he said, and instead started to ponder why he could find chanterelles in the woods, but not in a grocery store.
He spent the next year-and-a-half learning about mushrooms. “I talked a buddy of mine into turning his basement into a lab,” he said, chuckling. Growing mushrooms is a bit like being a dairy farmer, “they always need tending,” they’re just quieter. The differentiator between his business and others is that “we warehouse nothing,” he said about his mushrooms. “They are in the hands of the consumers within 24 hours.”
Kempenich turned mushrooms into a successful wholesale business. A retail space at Keg and Case appealed to him because they were willing to give him a “Willy Wonkish-type store” where he could grow mushrooms in public. The impressive space-age tower of mushrooms is “Facebook-worthy and promotes our brand,” he said.
Their 10-by-10 stall also educates people on mushrooms, and before the pandemic made sampling a no-go, employees cooked mushrooms for added sales power.
After Keg and Case turned the market "inside out” in July, Forest to Fork set up a booth in the parking lot where they continue their education, adding an eclectic line-up of music on the weekends, as well as employing chefs to do cooking demonstrations. It was a way to also benefit out-of-work chefs and musicians displaced by the ongoing pandemic.
Mike Kempenich, the Gentleman Forager, checks out a potential best seller. Knowing what's eatable and not is just part of what a wild foods expert needs before foraging.
“We didn’t go without impact, we lost revenue,” he said, adding, but “we didn’t have to lay anyone off.”
For restaurants and grocers, the pandemic shone a spotlight on the need to have a robust local supply chain. Forest to Fork cultivates about 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of mushrooms a month from its tower at Keg and Case. While the building was off-limits to most vendors when it first closed, Kempenich was given special permission to enter the building because mushrooms don’t stop growing. “Because of COVID, Kowalski’s offered to buy whatever we produced,” he said, when Keg and Case first shut down. “They stepped up to purchase, so we didn’t get interrupted.”
Kempenich is now packaging his exotic mushrooms for grocery sales. Currently most mushrooms, outside of button and portabella, are sold loose in bins in grocery stores, because mushrooms will grow on any type of paper product and start to look like mold, he said.
In order to further grow his business, he is now in the process of coming up with a proprietary packaging that is biodegradable and “full of QR codes and recipes” that provide additional information on the product. “People see the maitake mushroom and don’t know what to do with it,” he explained. Education has always been part of his business plan, first with his foraging field trips and then through school field trips to Keg and Case.
In addition to mushrooms, they’re selling ramps, fiddleheads and other difficult to source items chefs and home cooks crave. Most of their current sales are local, but the packaging will allow them to expand into five Midwest states.
The week after Keg and Case opened up their parking lot for social-distanced dining back in July, he said they did surprisingly well. “Either there’s going to be lots of people having fun, or we’ll be eating a lot of our own food,” he said.
When we checked back at the end of July for an update, he said, "Things are really fun at K&C on the weekends with the live music and food/beer. People seem to really enjoy having a safe space to feel normal for a few hours.”
And he’s taking advantage of the outdoor opportunities, as well. “I am now in full foraging mode and in the woods, Sunday through Wednesday, (with) chanterelles being the most prized at this point in the season.”
So you want to forage for a living: Here’s what you need to know
To sell wild mushrooms to food establishments in Minnesota, the Minnesota Food Code requires an approved (safe) source of wild mushrooms. A certified mushroom harvester is someone who is qualified to forage and sell wild mushrooms to food establishments. Mushroom identification experts must:
Complete a mushroom identification course at an accredited college, university, or mycological society. The identification course must cover the species of the mushroom the individual intends to forage and sell.
Currently mushroom identification courses are only being offered in Minnesota by the Minnesota Mycological Society, please visit their website to see upcoming trainings and events.
Obtain documentation from an accredited college, university, or mycological society certifying successful completion of a wild mushroom identification course.
The documentation must be on file with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA).
The documentation can be submitted online via our Wild Mushroom Harvester Registration, or
A copy of the documentation and the Wild Mushroom Harvester Registration form can be emailed to ProduceSafety.MDA@state.mn.us.
Individuals who have documentation on file with the MDA can be found on our Certified Wild Mushroom Harvester Database.
If you plan on selling mushrooms that you forage, please contact the licensing liaison, they will be able to determine if a license will be required call 651-201-6081 or email MDA.FoodLicensingLiaison@state.mn.us.
—State of Minnesota website
Fiddlehead ferns are another wild delicacy to be foraged.