Misty Mountain Specialties: Harvesting Healthy Products and Profits

David Lee Kwen has been in the specialty produce business for 27 years. “After I graduated from university [with a degree in cellular biology], I did a little work on mushroom culturing,” he recalls. “Eventually I saw a niche as people started to know about wild and exotic mushrooms.”

Building on his experience to fill market demand, he founded his company, Misty Mountain Specialties (MMS), with a partner in 1997 as a small specialty mushroom operation. The partner has since moved on, but the business still offers a wide variety of unusual edibles, still primarily focused on fresh and dried mushrooms but expanded into exotic produce.

Lee Kwen and his team have tapped into a distinct gourmet niche, previously unexplored by local businesses. “We provide anything out of the ordinary,” he explains. “We aim for excellence. We respect our customers and our priority is to serve their needs while maintaining standards of price, quality and service.” MMS has 18 dedicated full-time employees and a part-time staff of up to 20. The company has been praised for its products, which offer sustainability and a wide range of health benefits.

Lee Kwen and his team operate out of headquarters in Richmond, British Columbia, but they will travel as required to find the finest, freshest produce. They remain focused on providing quality, high-nutrient mushrooms that they harvest or buy harvested and package for sale to various foodservice and retail/private-label partners. MMS’s geographic footprint is growing, and the company serves customers all over Canada, as well as in Europe and Japan. “We operate out of a 5,000-square foot warehouse,” explains Lee Kwen. “We have offsite storage, but I would like to bring it all back together.” As the business grows, he is keeping an eye out for larger facilities.

Bounty of the Woods

“We started with exotic mushrooms and then moved into wild mushrooms,” says Lee Kwen. “These products are in high demand locally, as well as internationally, although we don’t deal much in the United States due to requirements and insurance costs.” His customers around the world can choose from a broad range of wild and domestic mushrooms, including chanterelles, truffles, black trumpets, cauliflower mushrooms, enoki, hedgehogs, lobster, matsutake, morels, oysters, porcinis, portabellas and shitake mushrooms.

Many of the wild mushrooms are offered only seasonally. These delicacies are hand gathered by skilled foragers at different times of year when the mushrooms are at their prime and most abundant. Some of the varieties, like two kinds of truffles offered by MMS, are incredibly rare. Truffles can fetch hundreds of dollars on the open market, depending on size.

Customers can order mushrooms fresh or dried. Drying mushrooms is an age-old method of preserving the tasty morsels. Dried mushrooms keep longer, travel better, and still maintain an enhanced flavor and texture upon reconstitution. MMS offers individual varieties dried as well as a variety blend for customers who like to dabble. This economical mixed mushroom bag proved a particular hit for middle-range consumers during the recent economic downturn.

Bringing More to the Table

Beyond his company’s well-established market share in mushrooms, Lee Kwen and his team are constantly looking for ways to diversify products. The specialty wild food niche has a broad range of options that vary in affordability. “We also offer a few specialty items like black garlic and fiddleheads,” says Lee Kwen. Fiddleheads are wild ferns that are just beginning to unfurl their leaves. The tasty plant is harvested in the springtime and is a delight sautéed or fried and served alone, in casseroles or atop salads. The black garlic is caramelized so it doesn’t leave garlic breath and has a host of health benefits. Additionally, tender sprigs of Asian pea shoots are marketed as a parsley alternative.

“We’re always looking for new ways to put forth products that are appealing to our customer base,” says Lee Kwen. “We want to bring in some new products as we grow.” Working with trusted strategic partners to source and/or cultivate the products, Lee Kwen and his staff focus on processing and distribution for the most part.

Even after over 15 years in business, MMS is constantly making adjustments to better serve a growing customer base. “We’re looking at establishing strategic partners closer to our customers,” says Lee Kwen. “We’d like partners in Amsterdam or Toronto so we can get stock to our customers faster.” He also plans to make adjustments to the company’s operating systems. “We want to make it easier for the staff to work and do what they do here,” he says. “I want to get everything going in digital mode. Everything will be coded so my team won’t have to do as much physical counting.”

With proactive operations on his mind, Lee Kwen says the team is on track and growing steadily. “We have a great future,” he says. “We just need to keep manufacturing jobs in Canada. We send so much of our raw materials out and we need to focus on keeping those jobs here.” Lee Kwen’s small business has been recognized as one of the top exporters in British Columbia, and he’d like to see the trend of using Canadian resources to help the Canadian economy further catch on throughout the country.

Lee Kwen remains passionate about his business. Keeping it going can be stressful, but Lee Kwen finds satisfaction is providing a source for coveted mushrooms that is unmatched in the food industry. Misty Mountain Specialties has created a unique niche in flavorful, healthy produce, and Lee Kwen is maintaining his market share with dedication and a positive attitude.