Growing mushrooms seems like a logical side gig for KC Sullivan. After all, he’s a science teacher at Middletown High School South with a love of gardening and 25 years of experience in the restaurant industry.
As for where he grows his mushrooms, it’s a bit of a surprise. That’s because Sullivan’s company, Two River Gourmet Mushrooms, operates what he calls a “hyperlocal, USDA-certified, urban, organic mushroom farm” out of a 40-foot shipping container on the premises of the Whitechapel Projects (WCP), a restaurant, brewery and event space in Long Branch.
“There are no textbooks out there about how to build a mushroom farm in a shipping container,” says Sullivan. Nevertheless, he presented the idea to friend, restaurateur and WCP executive chef Marilyn Schlossbach.
Sullivan—who has worked in various capacities at numerous restaurants—started Two River in 2014 after recognizing a demand for hyperlocal gourmet mushrooms. By 2018, he was growing mushrooms in a friend’s barn on a “very small scale,” he says. He reached out to Schlossbach in early 2019.
The shipping container, already onsite at WCP, was being used for storage. Retrofitting it took Sullivan and his team about four months. “We sealed the floors, spray foamed it with 2 or 3 inches of insulation, put up [composite] paneling and drainage, lighting, humidification, environmental controls and HVAC,” he says.
Save for WCP branding and some colorful murals, the container’s exterior looks like any other. Inside, it’s a different story. Packaging and mechanical rooms bookend the space; between them is the fruiting room, where the mushrooms are grown on wire shelving under special pink lights.
Two River grows almost 500 pounds of mushrooms a week, which “gives you an idea of how efficient and sustainable vertical farming can be,” Sullivan says. The company deals exclusively in hardwood mushroom varieties such as oyster, pioppino and lion’s mane, all valued for their culinary, as well as medicinal, properties.
Once grown, the mushrooms don’t travel far. “Because they’re so highly perishable, we pride ourselves on getting mushrooms into the hands of chefs within hours of being picked,” Sullivan says. Two River supplies more than 20 restaurants in Monmouth County, including WCP. The mushrooms are also available in retail locations, at farmers markets and through CSAs.
To avoid sitting on product that would otherwise go bad, Two River sells dried mushrooms in addition to fresh. Mushroom broth is another value-added product Sullivan has been working on, in collaboration with the Food Innovation Center at Rutgers University.
Through it all, Sullivan remains fascinated by fungi. “The more that you learn about mushrooms,” he says, “the more you grow to appreciate them.”Click here to leave a comment