Mushroom venture blooms from Philippines visit

It was a goodie gift bag on her 2015 trip to the Philippines that triggered something of a eureka moment for Wellington Chocolate Factory co-founder Rochelle Alagar.
Rochelle Harrison

Mushroom House founder and director Rochelle Alagar

It was a goodie gift bag on her 2015 trip to the Philippines that triggered something of a eureka moment for Wellington Chocolate Factory co-founder Rochelle Alagar.

“We were given a lot of products to try in the Philippines,” Rochelle says. “One was crispy oyster mushroom chips and I hadn’t come across them before.

“I thought to myself these are absolutely delicious. They reminded me of pork crackling.”

In the end, her Philippines visit with the Asia New Zealand Foundation’s ASEAN Young Business Leaders Initiative failed to eventuate in sales of chocolate or in cacao bean orders, but the thought of those mushroom chips stayed with Rochelle. Always keen on new ideas, she made a return visit to see if she could import the chips to New Zealand.

“Unfortunately my talks with the Philippine company came to a dead end,” Rochelle says, “but I studied the product and how it was made and I tested out making it in New Zealand.”

Rochelle looking at mushrooms growing in a shed

Rochelle inspecting mushrooms in one of her grow rooms in Plimmerton, Wellington

These days, while Rochelle is still on the board of directors of the Wellington Chocolate Factory and one of its major shareholders, much of her time is taken up with mushrooms – “a healthy delicious superfood”.

“I saw a gap here,” she says. “I read that there’s been a drop of 50 percent in the number of enterprises started up here in the agricultural sector in the past decade, and I thought OK, we need more urban farming.  More fresh products in local areas that save on our carbon footprint.”

Rochelle’s response was to set up Mushroom House, growing fresh mushrooms, developing her own oyster mushroom chips and distributing to high-end restaurants and selected food stores.

Mushroom House currently produces fresh pink and phoenix oyster mushrooms, and two types of mushroom chips: crispy coated and crispy coated flavoured with nasturtium leaves. The chip mushrooms are lightly floured, cooked in sunflower oil, dehydrated and hand packaged.

“At the moment our products are in the gourmet section but I’d like to make them more mainstream,” Rochelle says. “We’ll eventually get into Asian markets. I saw a lot of stores in the Philippines and other Asian countries sell small single servings.”

All Mushroom House mushrooms are grown on straw and the company also buys from other smaller growers. The company’s Plimmerton warehouse has been subdivided into a commercial kitchen and separate growing rooms.

“We inoculate our substrate with the mushroom spores, “Rochelle explains, “then this goes into a dark room for up to three weeks after which they’re placed in the grow room with controlled heating, humidity and light.

“After one week the mushrooms start to flower and are ready to pick. It’s very exciting to grow a vegetable in an urban area and produce it into a product for market.”

Rochelle wearing a face mask

Rochelle: "I like creating new things – something exciting for consumers to try.”

Importantly for the company’s sustainability ethos, a high percentage of waste goes into community garden projects to help put nutrients back into the soil, while oil gets recycled into cattle feed.

Rochelle says she has a five-year growth plan which includes developing new products like a nutritious mushroom jerky, possibly mixed with other vegetables.

“I like creating new things – something exciting for consumers to try,” she says.

A trained pastry chef of longstanding, Rochelle’s latest offering is an oyster mushroom icecream developed for the upcoming Wellington on a Plate food festival. “It’s got a sweet umami flavour, actually quite pleasant.”

Casting her mind back to that 2015 trip to the Philippines, Rochelle says she doesn’t think she would have ventured into the mushroom chip business without it. “I’m still in touch with people we met in the Philippines,” she says. “It was all so well organised and it opened my eyes to the agricultural sector.”

The ASEAN Young Business Leaders Initiative run by the Asia New Zealand Foundation with funding from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.