Eventually, I imagine all the old factory buildings in Connecticut will be put to new uses. Many have been already, yet most remain idle waiting for the perfect visionary to see the potential in each of these icons of Connecticut’s manufacturing past. Gregg Wershoven is one such visionary, but he isn’t feeding raw steel into stamping presses or creating parts that will join others in a bigger product. Gregg is growing mushrooms.
Some say that Waterbury’s old Chase Brass and Copper mill along the Naugatuck river was the world’s longest factory building in its day. Today, much of it is empty and in disrepair but some parts of it are already home to smaller shops and factories. Like everything else in Waterbury that used to be great, I believe the building will again be full and vibrant… it’s just a matter of time.
Gregg’s “real job” is that of a building contractor who specializes in bathroom remodeling. He knows the investors who own a piece of this gigantic building, and they asked him to keep an eye on it for them. Late one night a couple of years ago, something went wrong in the building and Gregg was called to oversee the repair. While deep in the cellar (basement is the correct word, but cellar plays better to this mushroom story) somebody must have said, “Wow, you could grow mushrooms down here.” Gregg heard it, but wasn’t really listening at the time.
A short while later, Gregg was at his Vermont weekend retreat when his neighbor dropped by to visit. He brought over some beautiful mushrooms that he said he had, “grown in his cellar.” Driving home, Gregg thought, “mushrooms,” “cellar.” Not too much longer after that, Gregg became a farmer.
Trial and error. Studying, reading, researching. Eventually, beautiful colored oyster mushrooms (yellow shown, you should see the blue and the pink!) were being harvested, and Gregg decided to find out if Connecticut’s talented chefs would have any interest. It seems fitting that he first presented his oyster mushrooms to Max’s Oyster Bar in West Hartford. Wisely, Gregg introduced himself as a “farmer,” because that is what he is. Restaurants always have an ample supply of salespeople dropping by unannounced. The best restaurateurs know that they can learn from a good vendor rep, and will find a few minutes to chat. But a visit from a farmer is a rare treat. Farmers are cool, and talented chefs like Max’s Scott Miller will always want to look at whatever a farmer brings by. Scott said the mushrooms were “beautiful,” and asked “how much?” Gregg hadn’t really thought about pricing, so they negotiated something around the going market rate.
Pumped by his success on his first sales call, he dropped by Bricco. The Bricco culinary team loved the mushrooms, and luckily Billy Grant himself was within earshot and overheard the conversation. Billy introduced himself, was equally impressed with these beautiful specimens and told Gregg to next visit Grant’s. “Tell them Billy said these are the mushrooms we buy now.” I speak with Billy almost daily, and the next phone call we had was about Gregg’s oyster mushrooms.
Gregg is passionate about his mushrooms, a labor of love more than a job or even a business. But of course, sales are important. As an upstart business, Gregg is still trying to find the perfect balance between having mushrooms ready to harvest, and chefs ready to buy. In the La Tavola kitchen, Gregg knows he can almost always come by with some of his beautiful oyster mushrooms… I’ll find a way to use them.
I want to see Gregg’s business flourish, because he’s a great guy with a great idea. Selfishly, I’d like to know that as long as I need mushrooms to cook with, I’ll have these beauties. So, I encourage all of Connecticut’s top chefs to call Gregg Wershoven at 860-919-5264, and hopefully begin a relationship with Mountaintop Mushroom Farm.