LOGAN SQUARE — Logan Square restaurants will soon start serving up an array of locally-grown mushrooms.
Like, really local.
Four Star Mushrooms, 1919 N. Springfield Ave., is one of only a few mushroom farms in Chicago and the first on the Northwest Side of the city. It features locally grown mushrooms in an indoor, climate-controlled environment that creates a yearlong growing season.
Founder Joe Weber started the company in late September with the mission of changing the mindset around agriculture production and bolstering the power of local, healthy foods like mushrooms.
“There’s really nobody in the city that’s growing at a large commercial scale, so I kind of saw a market opportunity,” Weber said. “I just wanted to start growing [and] to start making relationships in the restaurant industry.”
With Logan Square’s thriving restaurant scene and its engaged community, Weber knew the neighborhood would be a good place to start his business.
As of now, Four Star Mushrooms works with local grocery stores and restaurants and some in the suburbs. So far, his mushrooms can be found at The Royal Grocer & Co. in Bucktown, Local Foods in Wicker Park, Zia’s Trattoria and Cafe Touché in Edison Park, GT Prime Steakhouse in River West and RPM Italian in River North.
“My main goal is just to make the chefs that I’m working with happy and thankful and then relying on them to talk to each other,” Weber said. “If they want to share my product, they are more than welcome to.”
Shane Graybeal, executive chef at The Royal Grocer, said finding local ingredients often means they are of better quality. He also likes knowing exactly where the mushrooms come from.
“It’s such a cool selling point that Joe brings me mushrooms that were literally picked that morning, moments before they get to my hands,” said Graybeal, who gets fresh deliveries once or twice a week.
Graybeal uses the local fungi in his appropriately-named Logan Square Mushroom Fried Rice, which he said intrigues customers and tells a story about their origin.
“That adds a layer of complexity to the dish,” Graybeal said. “It’s something unique to this area and region.”
The indoor farm — which is currently just a high-humidity room packed with mycelium blocks on six shelves — grows three kinds of mushrooms, but Weber plans to expand as his clientele grows. For now, the farm produces blue oyster, black pearl and lion’s mane mushrooms. At home, he’s trying out four more: beach mushroom, a variety of blue oyster called king blue, pioppini and chestnut mushrooms, which he thinks the chefs will enjoy.
He chose his products because of their restaurant popularity and market value, their growing speed and for their medicinal qualities. All of Four Star Mushrooms’ fungi are pesticide-free and non-GMO, and Weber is working towards getting the farm to be certified organic.
Although he is not a mycologist, Weber has researched health benefits of mushrooms and wrote a blog post to educate the community and his clients on the history and qualities of edible mushrooms, and he plans to keep sharing health advantages to his website.
“Oyster mushrooms and black pearls help lower cholesterol [and are] high in protein,” he said. “Lion’s mane is a strong nootropic; it helps the brain work better and repairs neurons. [Scientists] are looking into using it for Alzheimer’s and dementia.”
The 24-year-old Hoffman Estates native graduated with a bachelor’s of science degree in biology in 2018 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and worked in ecological restoration and solar energy before starting his mushroom journey. With an entrepreneurial spirit partly inspired by his father, Weber decided to start his own company.
“We need to decentralize big time and get a lot more people growing,” he said. “And I think that that’s going to be really good for local economies, because it’s going to create entrepreneurs.”
His father Jeff Weber, an entrepreneur who started three businesses during his career and has mentored more than 100 startups with the Founder Institute, helped his son with sales outreach, marketing and the importance of building customer relationships.
“It’s been neat to see him gain his first customers in his target market and I’ve tried to remind … to stay focused on who you think is your target customer,” Jeff Weber said. “I think that’s coming through.”
It’s just the beginning for Four Star Mushrooms, but Joe Weber has big goals. Right now his business license only allows him to serve to other businesses but he hopes to sell directly to consumers and to create medicinal extracts and powders in the future.
“I’m putting it on the line,” he said, adding that owning his own business has been stressful at times. “Everybody knows I’m doing this, so you don’t want to fail. But that also pushes you to work harder and innovate. Overall, it’s a blast. I love doing it. I’m learning so much every day, from sales to marketing to how to grow these mushrooms better.”
Weber’s already seeing a need to expand his farm as demand and clientele increases. The farm operates on pounds per week, and Joe Weber said his goal is to produce thousands of pounds per week as he spreads into more local food communities.
“I got into this because I wanted to change the way we do agriculture,” he said. “People just really need to make sure that they know where their food is coming from, know the source, question the source and then support local growers.”
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