TROY, N.Y. — In a city like Troy where small businesses are predominant, it can help to have a niche market that sets you apart from others. Avery Stempel, owner of Collar City Mushrooms, has found his niche. His is the only store in the entire city that’s devoted entirely to mushrooms.
You might be wondering, how can a store that only sells mushrooms and mushroom-related items do well? Isn’t that a little too niche? As it turns out, no. Mushrooms are a rapidly-growing industry, doing millions of dollars worth of business last year. Some facets are projected to reach billions of dollars in sales by 2024.
“I knew this would be a feasible, sustainable cornerstone for this area,” Stempel said.
Since the store’s ribbon-cutting last month, it continues to grow and evolve as Stempel works on his many ideas for the business. The store’s website is constantly being updated, with a new focus on sustainability. Stempel has started reaching out to local schools about field trips and out-of-the-classroom learning opportunities. He and some of his staff have become certified mushroom experts through an online learning course, schooled in wild mushroom identification and harvesting knowledge. He’s thinking about joining the Rensselaer County Chamber. And Collar City Mushrooms received a Grade A small food processing certification through the Agriculture and Markets Law department, which means there’s more Stempel can do with gowning and selling mushrooms.
Stempel has long-term plans and visions for the space, many of which center on community outreach and involvement. He and his family have always been highly involved in the community. He used to be a Scout Master for his son’s boy scout troop. His daughter is the 2020 Albany Tulip Queen, a title which comes with a heavy amount of community outreach and volunteer work.
Some of Stempel’s plans for community outreach have kicked off right away. He’s already got a business partnership with Capital Roots and Comfort Food, two organizations that use grants from the Nourish New York program to buy his unsold inventory for food pantries. He also worked with the Duane Stuart School in Rensselaer to get a mushroom bed installed on their green roof, so that students can learn firsthand about mushroom growth and harvesting.
“I want to benefit as many facets of the community as possible,” Stempel commented.
He’s even trying to connect with BOCES to arrange for students to spend time at the store as part of their daily learning experiences in science and agriculture programs. Collar City Mushrooms was built with an eye for education. Stempel wants to be part of the growing agrotourism and agroeducation industries.
And that’s all in addition to the daily duties of running his store.
After about a month in business, Stempel says he and his staff are getting the hang of the growth cycles for the varieties of mushrooms farmed and sold in the store.
“We’re learning how to balance needed supplies with production,” Stempel said. “We’re getting a handle on the inoculation to fruiting cycle, to keep a steady inventory. We’re already close to hitting capacity in the inoculation chambers. I’m hoping to expand downstairs.”
Stempel is also currently exploring ways to supplement Collar City Mushroom’s income in other, mushroom-related ways. He has designed a four-part comic book series and two card games that he hopes to sell through the store. The comic books feature the Dao de Mogu (Way of the Mushroom) Warriors, drawn by local artist Michael Lake. Stempel connected with Lake when he was hosting a GoFundMe campaign for a mushroom coloring book. Lake submitted a warrior drawing for consideration in the book, and Stempel loved it so much that he asked Lake to come up with an entire series of mushroom warrior characters.
Stempel has been a mushroom lover all his life, recalling childhood memories of walking in the woods and being attracted to the splashes of color that wild mushrooms made amidst the greens and browns of the woods. He describes himself as a poet and philosopher who values feeding the soul.
“Feeding the belly was a natural next step,” he said, describing the process of becoming a mushroom farmer. “It’s very important to pay attention to what you eat. I really want more people to understand and enjoy mushrooms.”
Stempel started out in the education industry. He used to be an elementary teacher, then worked at RPI until the pandemic hit and he was furloughed. The idea of owning his own mushroom farm had already been percolating in his mind for years, encouraged by his entrepreneur brother. When Stempel was let go, he decided it was time to open his own business.
“Here I get to curate and create experiences the way I want,” he said. “I love watching mushrooms grow. I love the work here because it’s very tactile. It can be very meditative when you’re harvesting. I really don’t feel like it’s a job.”
Stempel happily admits he is in his ideal job, one that he was able to create, not find. And he can’t wait to share it with the whole community.
“As COVID continues to go away, we’re hoping to have more shared experiences,” he said.
Stempel has ideas for artist exhibitions, exclusive dining experiences with guest chefs, neighborhood cleanup days, live music and poetry nights, and more. He would love to teach foraging and mushroom identification skills. And he hopes that through it all, he’ll be able to spread his love of mushrooms to others.
“Americans, for some reason, are really afraid of mushrooms,” Stempel commented. “For sure, there are some out there that can hurt or kill you, but there are so many more [that] can provide so many wholistic benefits – nutrition, alternative leather, teas and tinctures. It’s fascinating that mushrooms can do so much.”
Collar City Mushrooms is located at 333 Second Ave. and is open for business five days a week: Wednesday 10 a.m. – 2 p.m., Thursday 10 a.m. – 5 p.m., Friday 10 a.m. – 2 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. and Sunday noon – 3 p.m. For more information, visit collarcitymushrooms.com.