Mike Kempenich and I are on the patio of a North Loop bar trading notes about foraging and camper vans. His is parked around the corner, all geared up for his next-day departure for Canada to hunt for fruiting fungi. I’m lucky to have even connected with him considering how much time he spends in the woods, especially in August when his busy season really starts.
Kempenich owns and operates Forest to Fork, the wild mushroom emporium that sits near the heart of St. Paul’s Keg and Case Market. Conceived of by Twin Cities transplant Craig Cohen, Keg and Case occupies a portion of the revived Schmidt Brewery. Thomas Boemer and Nick Rancone of Revival, In Bloom, and Corner Table (RIP) acclaim assisted Cohen in assembling the collection of shops and eateries housed within.
Kempenich was in the middle of the woods near the Canadian border picking mushrooms when he first got the call from Boemer, who described the Keg and Case team’s vision and their desire to include a foraged foods vendor. “I was amazed that my phone even rang out there. It kind of scared me, honestly,” Kempenich recalls.
The idea of running a booth in a food hall was not immediately enticing, but after returning home and researching food hall concepts from other cities, Kempenich began piecing together what he describes as a Willy Wonka-esque vision of a mushroom wonderland.
Any visit to Forest to Fork quickly confirms that Kempenich has an exciting imagination. Upon entering the indoor market, Forest to Fork is best identified by the two-story, glass-walled, colorfully lit cultivation chamber filled with several varieties of mushrooms. On first inspection, the misty, glowing fruiting chamber evokes images of an enchanted forest dance party more than it does a farm, but this vertical cultivation, or “vert-cult” method, produces up to 800 pounds of mushrooms every two weeks. The most popular varieties grown there include lion’s mane, oyster, and shiitake, with occasional specialties like the black poplar.
Along with the bounty from the fruiting chamber, Forest to Fork stocks its shelves with products from an extensive network of foragers across the Midwest and the Pacific Northwest, as well as farther-flung parts of the globe. It’s no surprise to hear that building those relationships took a lot of time and trust—the foraging community is inherently secretive. When asked where he searches for mushrooms, Kempenich is quick to answer with “the woods,” or, even more cryptically: “Yes.”
In an early venture, Kempenich and a partner were trying to source amadou hats—which are made from the mushroom Fomes fomentarius—from a forager in Transylvania. (Yes, Transylvanian mushroom hats.) “I’m a complete idiot, I’m sending $1,500 to a Baltic state address,” he recalls thinking to himself. “This has to be a scam!” But the hats arrived, and after 10 years of working with members of the foraging community, Kempenich says he has never had a bad experience with a fellow forager.
By the time Keg and Case opened in September 2018, Kempenich had been operating the Gentleman Forager as a strictly wholesale operation for over a decade, supplying about 100 restaurants in the metro and beyond with foraged mushrooms. But a direct-to-consumer model had always been his original dream. When he first started slinging spores, however, the public awareness around wild foods which we enjoy today wasn’t quite to the level where he felt a shop could sustain itself.
Some of the newfound awareness that foraged foods are currently enjoying is due to Kempenich’s own efforts. When he first wanted to start selling wild mushrooms to restaurants, the Minnesota Department of Health restricted the sale of wild mushrooms to individuals who had taken a certification class offered by the University of Minnesota or the Minnesota Mycological Society. The only catch: no such class was offered by either institution. Sitting on a panel along with other stakeholders in the wild foods quest, Kempenich consulted on the language for the new certification process and even ended up teaching the class in its early years. This ability to attain certification for the legal sale of wild mushrooms has contributed to these delights popping up on menus all over the state.
Overall, Kempenich reports that he is happy with how the Keg and Case experiment has turned out, and how Forest to Fork is performing after its first year. One surprise was that summer did not turn out to be the bustling season he was expecting, rather fall and winter stepped up as the busiest times of the year. The shop has continued to grow both its sales and recognition, though, and Kempenich’s excitement about St. Paul, particularly the West Seventh corridor, is palpable.
Kempenich and Mark Toth, owner/operator of Urban Wok, located across from Union Depot in downtown St. Paul, are currently working on plans to expand the existing Forest to Fork booth to include a kitchen that will offer fast-casual vegan and vegetarian options—with plenty of mushrooms, of course. The duo is aiming to open in the beginning of October of this year and to offer affordable entrees starting at the $8 mark. The end result will be a business that grows, retails, wholesales, and cooks mushrooms—all in a 20-by-30-foot space. Kempenich is keenly aware of the symbiotic relationship that must exist between tenants in an enterprise like Keg and Case, and expresses hope that the new kitchen at Forest to Fork will be just one more reason patrons visit the market on a weekly or daily basis.
Another friend joins our group on the patio and the conversation steers toward Kempenich’s weekend plans for Canada. “Where to? I’m from Canada!” she asks.
“Yes!” answers Kempenich.
“I asked where you are going.”
“Yes!” He smiles benignly.
“Oh come on, Mike!”
“Alright fine,” he concedes. “The woods.”