Theodosia mushroom factory finds ways to ‘keep the doors open’ during COVID-19 pandemic
Mountain Mushrooms, a certified organic mushroom factory in Theodosia owned by Robin and Sheila Williams, was in many ways at the top of its game this year.
“Our production levels are some of the highest we’ve seen since I’ve been working here, and I’ve been here for seven years,” factory manager Steve Schmekel told the Times last week. “We could be selling 4,000 pounds a week, easily. We’re organic certified. We’re GFS certified through Primus auditing. All of our inspections are 100 percent. We’ve got the cream of the crop right here.”
But the success came to a screeching halt about two weeks ago when, like so many other businesses across the nation, the business’s normal routine was turned upside down by the effects of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.
Sending mushrooms all over the country
The business primarily ships its product to one food distributor, loading up trucks twice a week to transport thousands of pounds of organic mushrooms to the distributor’s warehouse in Miami, Oklahoma. Throughout the years they’ve also worked with distributors in Illinois, Texas and other locations across the country.
After arriving at the warehouse in Oklahoma, the distributor disseminates the fresh mushrooms to bakeries, restaurants, community centers, convenience stores, cruise lines and other businesses who use them.
“Our mushrooms go all over the country, so they can end up in government buildings, part of cafeteria systems or used in restaurants,” Schmekel said. “The problem right now is there is just not a market for it at this time. With everything closing down, no one is purchasing from these wholesalers because there is no one to sell it to, and there’s no demand at the moment for fresh mushrooms like we have here.”
The distributor they work with usually asks for between 1,500 to 2,000 pounds of mushrooms twice a week from the Theodosia factory. So the factory sends out 3,000 to 4,000 pounds most weeks. In contrast, their most recent order was for just 500 pounds, a drastic reduction from normal.
“So, at this point, we’re starting to look at whether the costs involved with sending such small amounts is worth the cost of the truck leaving the factory. The cost of fuel and things like that. Luckily, fuel prices have gone down, but it’s still not the best situation all the way around,” Schmekel said.
It’s unclear how the market will continue to be affected as COVID-19 continues to spread across the country, closing more businesses as it does.
“We just spoke with a supplier in Illinois about the possibility of them taking more product from us in another market to spread it out. We sent them some photos, and they said our mushrooms look fantastic. It’s just at this time, nobody is able to make purchases like that. We were on the phone with them at 8 o’clock in the morning and have been in constant contact to see if there’s anything opening up. The woman he spoke with said they look fantastic. She said, ‘We’d love to do business; we just can’t.’”
The factory normally operates with six to seven employees, but it has had to cut its staff down to a skeleton crew of just three workers. The rest of the employees have been laid off, for now.
“We’re taking it one day at a time as to what is going to happen,” Schmekel said. “Everyone here realizes that it is nobody’s fault. It’s just the necessary steps that have to be taken to ensure they have a job to come back to. That’s our number one goal here is to make sure we can keep our doors open and keep our employees working for us in the long-term. That’s always been the owner’s goal, to have work in the area for everybody. He could have built this factory anywhere, but he chose to build it here, because he knew it would have the greatest impact on the surrounding community.”
Schmekel said every employee at Mountain Mushroom lives in Ozark County.
In addition to cutting staff, the factory is also cutting operational expenses involved with growing the product.
Schmekel says the factory normally operates with eleven 40-foot by 80-foot grow rooms filled floor to ceiling with mushroom logs. Now, they’re operating with just one room of shiitake mushrooms and one room of oyster mushrooms.
“It just helps to cut costs and helps us save as much as we can right now,” Schmekel said. “And there’s no point in growing 2,000 pounds of mushrooms, if you can only sell 500 pounds.”
Schmekel says it takes anywhere from 9 to 11 days from the time the mushroom logs are placed in the grow rooms until the time employees begin picking off of them. In a normal day, Mountain Mushroom employees pick between 500 and 600 pounds of mushrooms.
On Friday, the factory had a pallet of 400 pounds of mushrooms sitting in the cooler that they were unable to send.
“And this is just a small amount of what we had to leave off the truck,” Schmekel said. “A lot more we just had to get rid of, because the shelf life is limited and they had passed their prime.”
But Schmekel says that although times are stressful now, he’s 100 percent confident the factory will come out OK in the end.
“We have no intention of going anywhere,” Schmekel said. “We’ve been here a long time and we plan to be here for the foreseeable future.”
Order mushrooms locally
In true Ozark County fashion, Mountain Mushroom has come up with creative ways to weather the storm. One way is to open broader sales to the local community.
A photo of Mountain Mushroom’s shiitakes was posted to the Ozark County Times Facebook page Friday, inviting local residents to call the factory and order the fresh, organic mushrooms at a drastic discount from their normal pricing.
The post was shared more than 250 times by Times followers, and Schmekel says many people have placed orders.
“We’ve had an enormous interest in the purchase of mushrooms direct from the factory,” Schmekel said in an email update Monday.
Mountain Mushroom is temporarily selling shiitake and oyster mushrooms for the discounted rate of $3 per pound, nearly 60 percent off the normal $7 per pound. The business is also selling 5-pound boxes for $10. The boxes can be filled with shiitake mushrooms, oyster mushrooms or a mixture of the two. The discounted rate is only offered temporarily. In the future, when the market normalizes, regular pricing will be reinstated.
The shelf life of oyster and shiitake mushrooms direct and fresh from the factory is close to two weeks when refrigerated. Schmekel says they also freeze and dehydrate well.
Co-owner Robin Williams’ daughter, Lindsey Williams, is currently heading up the distribution of local orders. Those wishing to order can call Lindsey at the Mountain Mushroom factory at 417-273-2244 or email email@example.com. The office is open from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. seven days a week.
The factory is currently working to get a business Facbeook page up and running and researching ways to ship fresh mushrooms and mushroom logs. When shipping is available, the Ozark County Times will post details.