Buffalo may be known for its chicken wings and fish frys, but Western New Yorkers also have an appetite for locally produced healthy foods. In WBFO’s Farm-to-Table series, we meet entrepreneurs in the region's growing industry and how they're helping to change the local economy.
"Food related businesses are the number one business in the state of New York. So they surpass, in numbers, all other businesses," said Susan McCartney, the director of the Small Business Development Center at SUNY Buffalo State who also sits on the board of the Elmwood Bidwell Farmer's Market. McCartney says local food growers and restaurant owners tend to make a great fit and create a family of businesses.
"The passion that each have for each other is just absolutely beautiful. It's very good. And each will benefit from it. This offers an exciting additional target market for agriculturally based businesses," McCartney said.
The owner of Flat #12 Mushrooms, Rob Gianadda, started growing gourmet mushrooms in the basement of his home on Buffalo's West Side in 2014 because he and his wife wanted to just eat better.
"We started looking at labels. That's all that it takes. You just start looking at a label and you're like, 'oh my god. What? Why is this? What's in this?' So that started us changing where we ate, as well," Gianadda said.
They gave up fast food, got to know farmers at farmers markets and discovered farm-to-table restaurants, including Bistro Europa. After it closed five years ago, owner/chef Steve Gedra and his wife Ellen opened up The Black Sheep on Connecticut Street in Buffalo.
"Everything from our sausages to our bread is made here," Gedra said.
Gianadda says he got to know Gedra.
"One day I told him, 'Hey, I grew some mushrooms' and he's like, 'Tat's totally awesome, you should totally do that.' So I did. And then it didn't take long for word to spread," Gianadda said.
His customer base now includes about 50 local restaurants.
"Oliver's, Lombardo's, Jay's Artisnal Pizzeria, Billy Club on Allen. We do the Lexington Co-Op," Gianadda said.
In recent months, Flat #12 Mushrooms moved to a renovated building on Chandler Street in Buffalo with state-of-the-art equipment.
"We're in the grow room now. You can see that we've got the humidifier over there on full blast keeping it nice and humid in here. And we've got it right at 58 degrees which is our wintertime temperature. You can see there's a big sock in the top part of the room there and that's blowing fresh air in," Gianadda said.
The energy-efficient system, he says, exchanges all the air in the room 12 times an hour.
"It's very important to have a good supply of fresh oxygenated air. Mushrooms breathe like we do. They take in oxygen and expel CO2, so we want a fresh supply of oxygen."
The process starts in a clean room where organic oak wood chips, organic soybean hulls, mycelium and some water are sealed in special sterile bags to incubate for two weeks.
"It's very simple. We don't have any additives. We don't spray with bleach. We don't have any pesticides. We don't do any of that. And I think it shows in the quality. And I think that people are like catching on about how absolutely fantastic the product actually is."
Gianadda's company is producing five varieties of mushrooms.
"We do shiitakes, lion's mane, grey oyster, black pearl, chestnut."
And they grow fast. Gianadda says he is harvesting about 350 pounds a week. But he's not trying to compete with national distributors.
"When you buy it from us it was from a day ago, or maybe even an hour ago. What we're doing is we're just harvesting, cooling it as fast as we can and then right out the door," Gianadda said.
Black Sheep's Gedra says he has been "preaching" to other restaurants for years about buying local. He says the food quality is better and it's important for the region's economy.
"As we're seeing, corporations are kind of lining their pockets and squashing the little guys. I think it's very important to support local farms. You know we're losing family farms every day. Thousands of them."
After nearly ten years in the farm-to-table sector, he says, he thinks the dining public demands higher quality now. Last year, Gedra says, was their "best year ever."