What I've done
In 2008, I moved from Vermont to California, where I founded a business called forageSF. Over the course of this journey, I've learned all kinds of things, from how to cook an eight-course meal for a hundred people, to how to spearfish for my dinner. I've created food markets that attracted thousands of attendees; appeared on two Travel Channel shows, organized petitions to change state laws; figured out the workings of the (at times shady) wild mushroom trade; and raised $150K on Kickstarter. I was featured as one of the top 30 most innovative people in SF by 7x7 magazine, and named a "local hero" by SF Weekly.
These seemingly disparate experiences are linked by a common thread—my desire to help people to connect with each other and with their community and surroundings, and (as much as I can) to show them that they have the ability to lead the lives they want to lead. This might mean learning how to forage, starting a food business, or cooking dinner for a group of friends.
I believe that most people have great ideas and that they possess the skills to bring them to fruition, if they believe it’s possible. Cheesy, I know—but true. If there’s something you want to do, just go for it. If this requires a skill you don’t have, go out and find someone who can teach you. If there’s a resource you can’t afford, try to think of a way around it or to find it for free. This has worked for me so far.
Selling mushrooms—the legal variety
I first became aware of wild mushroom foraging when I met some professional foragers in Northern California. Before that, if you'd asked where wild mushrooms came from, I would have said, "I guess the woods?" I hadn't given it much thought. Meeting these foragers was revelatory. Their professional occupation was to walk around in the woods looking for something that humans haven't figured out how to grow. I found this truly mind-blowing.
I was hooked, so I started foraging with my newfound friends. Before long, I found out how little compensation they received for their labor. For a pound of mushrooms that would cost you $25 in a store, the forager receives as little as $2. I wanted to change this, so I started my business. With absolutely no knowledge of this industry (or about business in general), I began to regularly drive from Northern California to San Francisco, where I cold called chefs and knocked on the backdoors of kitchens and restaurants. With my pallet of fragrant, black trumpet mushrooms in hand, still smelling of the forest, I’d ask to speak with the chef. This strategy worked. I shared all my profits 50/50 with my comrades.
CSF (Community-Supported Forage)
In California, the mushroom season is short. Mushrooms need rain in order to grow, and we don't get a lot of rain. During the off-season, I started exploring the region and discovering all the other wild edibles on offer. I found wild greens, acorns, seaweeds, and flowers, and I started experimenting with recipes.
I then started the CSF. It’s a lot like CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) but the boxes are made up completely of wild foraged foods and are delivered bi-weekly with recipes. My idea was to organize a group of foragers, and, by splitting the profit from the boxes 50/50 , to allow foraging to be a full-time profession for people who want that lifestyle. It kinda worked. The response from customers was amazing—everyone wanted to try the boxes. It was not as easy to find foragers. I've found that people who want to spend all day in the woods collecting plants are not necessarily the same people who will always want to show up when they say they will or who answer phone calls. I learned a lot from running the CSF. After a year of foraging, assembling and delivering the boxes myself, I decided it was time to move on.
Wild Food Education
After this, I set my sights on educating people about wild food. We organized wild food walks to teach people about the most abundant wild greens; sea forages for coastal finds; and mushroom hunts that take people into the woods to discover the wonders of edible mushrooms. We still offer these classes here. We have added classes on using foraged ingredients to make bitters and other cocktail mixers. People are hungry (apologies for the pun!) for knowledge about what is wild and edible. Our mission with the classes isn't necessarily to breed an army of people who forage daily, but to expose people to the idea that food doesn't always have to come from the farm or the supermarket. Our goal is just to help people to make that mental leap.
The Wild Kitchen
As I learned more about wild edibles, I started to experiment with recipes. From Bullwhip Kelp Pickles to Candy Cap Crème Brûlée (I know those don't sound very good together, but as bookends of a meal they are delicious. Growing up, I'd always worked in restaurants, but never in the kitchen. I was a bartender and waiter by trade. I wanted to cook more, but I knew working my way up the line and getting paid $12 per hour to cook someone else's food wasn't for me, so I started The Wild Kitchen, my underground supperclub.
I wasn't sure exactly how to approach this, so I just chose a date—Valentine’s Day seemed like a good place to start—and sent an e-mail blast to my subscriber list. At the time, this consisted of about fifty people. I waited. And waited. I booked the venue, bought the food, roped some of my friends into helping out. Two days before the dinner, I still didn't have any customers.
My girlfriend at that time suggested I reach out to the Mission Mission blog and ask them to post the event. I did, and it worked! The dinner sold out almost immediately. I'll be forever grateful to Alan at Mission Mission for helping me out.
The dinner was a success. It was held in the Mission, in a warehouse where some of my friends lived. Most people sat at candlelit communal tables lined with bottles of wine and steaming platters of local crab and other foragables. We had also sold four sets of "couples" tickets, with nooks reserved for the happy pairs. One couple sat in a speedboat in the corner; another in a Bedouin tent. It was a good night. Not all of the dinner’s ingredients had been foraged; the idea is that each course highlights a few wild foraged ingredients. Over the course of the evening, I nervously scanned the crowd, in case one of the diners was a health inspector—these dinners are technically illegal—but, luckily, it went off sans police. We always send out the location of the dinner to ticket holders on the day of the event, in order to avoid any possible issues.
We’ve been doing these dinners every few months for more than six years. We’ve had dinners in Noe Valley mansions, houseboats in Sausalito, Mission rooftops, and Soma drug dens. These dinners have grown from the original forty person, four course menu, to hundred person, eight course feasts. Everyone sits at communal tables, shares wine, and from the beginning I’ve always gotten up between courses to talk about what people are about to eat. Where it came from, why Im excited about it. I’ve always thought of pop-ups like one night art pieces. The food is important, but the scene you set is just as key. There are thousands of places to get good food in SF, so a pop-up should be an experience they’ll never forget.
After years of these dinners I’ve pulled back from these events a bit to focus on other projects, but it’s possible we’ll revive it in the future. If you want to check one out, join our e-mail list at forageSF.com, and we’ll send you menus and ticket dates. The menu changes throughout the season, depending on what’s fresh and abundant.
The Underground Market
In 2009, I started the Underground Market as a place where small producers (be they backyard growers or cookie makers) could sell their wares without the burdensome fees of selling at a licensed farmers’ market. We managed this by asking everyone who came into the market to sign a form stating they were members. I love loopholes, and this was a great one.
The markets were held monthly over a year and a half. During that time we went from two spare rooms in a Mission apartment with 10 vendors and 100 attendees to an event space holding 100 vendors and 2,500 people lined up around the block. We sold everything from Bacon Crack to Raw Milk Ice Cream; from granola to backyard honey. Over 350 vendors sold with us over that span of time. The Underground Market spawned dozens of small businesses—it warms my heart whenever I walk into Whole Foods and see products that started with us—and inspired similar events in other cities and countries, from Boise to Paris Amsterdam. We had a good run, and the Health Department grudgingly accepted our use of the loophole, but we knew it would have to come to an end sometime.
That day finally came. In 2009, The New York Times ran a front-page story about the Underground Market, and the following month we were shut down. Rumor had it that the state-level California Health Department was getting calls from other states about how to deal with similar events popping up, and the shit rolled downhill to our local officials, who promptly laid down the hammer. It was good while it lasted and was perfect for its time and place, but part of me was relieved when it ended. It’s difficult and stressful to run a business based upon an event that is very public but is not technically legal. Towards its end, the Underground Market had grown so much in scale that it cost me about $10K up front to organize, and I never knew whether this would be the month that I would schedule the market only to get a last-minute call from the City telling me to stop.
I was frustrated, of course, and that frustration fueled a fairly public fight with the Health Department. I was cast as the little guy who was trying to help people, and they were cast as the villainous government oppressors. I have some regrets about that. Everyone has a job to do, and they were simply doing theirs. It’s the culture of industrial production that’s to blame, rather than the official, but it’s easier to demonize a local official than it is to demonize a culture. I learned a lot from it, though. Hopefully, the next time I am faced with that kind of choice, I’ll deal with it in a more civil way.
The reason for the market (and a bit of a rant)
I’ll save everyone from reading this, but if you want to hear my thoughts on the pros and cons of a regulatory culture created to favor industrial production over small business, you can check them out here.
Forage Kitchen Kickstarter
Forage Kitchen is the project I’m most focused on at the moment. It’s pretty well covered in the “What I’m Doing” section of the site, so here I’ll talk about the campaign I created to jumpstart it. In 2012, I used Kickstarter to raise $156K to fund Forage Kitchen. As I write this, I’m still amazed that it worked. Halfway through my campaign, when I’d reached approximately 30% of my goal, I remember getting a flurry of e-mails from well-meaning folks who told me it would be okay, and asking if I was going to try again with a smaller goal. My goal was $150K, and on Kickstarter, you don’t get any of the money you’ve raised unless you reach your goal.
The month when I was running that campaign may be the most stressful month of my life so far. My memory of it always seems to focus on me, sitting in front of the computer and nervously pressing the refresh button on the campaign page, feeling elated when there was a pledge and downtrodden when there wasn’t. After a few days, I set some rules for myself about checking the figures, otherwise I would have gone crazy. In the end, it worked! Over 1,600 people, most of them strangers, believed in my idea enough to give me some cash—anything from $1 to $5,000—and I reached my goal on the last day of the campaign. In that day alone, $25K was donated. It was a crazy experience that required every bit of the showmanship, good will, organizing, and hustling skills I’d acquired since starting my business. If you’re thinking of doing a Kickstarter and want to read a really honest account of what it’s like, I wrote one up here.
That’s all for now. Of course, I did a lot more along the way. I started surfing (although it’s generous to call what I do on a board surfing), learned abalone diving, travelled a bit, met an insane number of people doing great things, but that’s the Cliff’s Notes version. Check out my other posts, and maybe soon I’ll hear about what you’re up to, too!