podcast

October 27, 2021

R & R Cultivation (Season 3 Episode 56)

R & R Cultivation is a local grower in the Twin Cities that specializes in growing organic, gourmet mushrooms.

Owner Nick Robinson and Lance Ramm started their first grow in Nick’s basement. In two short years, Nick and Lance took R&R Cultivation from a small, basement operation to a fully-scaled urban farm. Today, they supply their fresh, gourmet mushrooms to most co-ops and farmers’ markets and all Lunds & Byerlys locations in the Twin Cities.

We are excited to showcase their mushrooms in a special 3-course  Makers of Minnesota Dinner at the Lexington in St Paul on November 30th. . Get tickets here Guests are invited to enjoy cocktail hour with hors d’oeuvres in The Williamsburg Room from 6:00-6:30 pm followed by a 3-course dinner created by Chef Antonio utilizing products from three local makers.

Our November Dinner will feature mushrooms from R & R Cultivation and products from past Makers of Minnesota Podcast Guests

– Vikre Distilling

– Red Head Creamery

– Isadore Nuts

You will be our exclusive guest at The Lexington and get to talk to the makers, as well as pre-order your first-ever Makers Of Minnesota Holiday gift box featuring Isadore Nuts that I have curated. Get your tickets now and join us on November 30 for a fun night celebrating the wonderful Makers of Minnesota.

Support the show (https://paypal.me/StephanieKHansen?locale.x=en_US)

Transcript

Stephanie Hansen  00:02

The makers of Minnesota dinner series at the Lexington have been a blast. Imagine being in the beautiful setting of the Lexington in St. Paul in the gorgeous Williamsburg room with the stained glass windows, the leather banquettes accompanied by 75 other people just like you. They’re all there to experience a great dinner made by chef Antonio with wine pairings featuring products made right here in Minnesota. Our November dinner is Tuesday, November 30. And tickets are $98 we have four featured makers at this dinner, including cheese from redhead Creamery the delicious nuts of the north from isidor nut company, beautiful spirits from V gray distillery in Duluth, and mushrooms from r&r cultivation who are farming 11 different types of mushrooms right here in Minnesota will have makers in Minnesota holiday boxes filled with my favorite products for sale, including is adores Chai not Mex, which I’m just crazy about. I’m so excited to see how chef Antonio will use all of these ingredients in his multicourse menu. We’ll have a limited number of tickets for this special dinner. And we have sold out the last two dinners. So go to the lex mn.com and sign up via Eventbrite for the third makers in Minnesota dinner at the Lexington. Go to the Lexington mn.com and get your tickets now and join me and some fabulous makers who will tell you about their products and share their maker stories while treating you to chef Antonio’s gorgeous creations using their products buy tickets now at the lex mn.com. Hi, this is Stephanie Hansen and you’re listening to the makers in Minnesota podcast. During this podcast we talked to cool people doing cool things. And mushroom growing is pretty cool for lots of reasons. Now I’m not talking about those mushrooms though for some people that’s pretty cool too. I’m talking about cultivated mushrooms that you eat, that you eat for enjoyment that you eat for your gourmet cooking that you eat for your every day. People are either I feel like people are either in one of two camps on mushrooms like either crazy about them or they’re not necessarily for them. So I’m going to talk with Nick Robinson today he’s from r&r cultivation, and they are taking honestly the Minnesota mushroom world by storm him and his partner Lance ROM is there to mushroom camps like you’re either into it or you’re like oh they taste like they’re

Nick Robinson  02:35

exactly it. I think I think it’s a lot of preconceived notions from people eating like canned Agaricus button mushrooms right when they’re growing up. So just being like, yeah, you know what they’re they’re like, they’re rubbery. They’re they tastes like chewing on an eraser, or they just have like no taste at all. They’re slimy. And and that’s what we’ve been combating here in the Twin Cities. That’s why starting out inside of farmers markets were able to kind of explain to people No, no, no, this is different. This is how you should cook these mushrooms.

Stephanie Hansen  03:03

Oh, I need to know your trajectory. Because all of a sudden, I just noticed one day, all these mushrooms and crosskeys. And I was like, Oh, look at all these cool mushrooms. And then I noticed them at lunch. And then I feel like you’re just everywhere. And there’s so many mushrooms and I you know i’m i’m not like a massive foodie person. But I’m a big eater and I eat out a lot. And there were mushrooms I’ve never even heard of so I’m curious how you guys went from farmers market to stores

Nick Robinson  03:34

out of necessity. So So our the business model that we started out with was farmers markets, so we were going to local farmers markets selling their spreading mushroom love. And then we said well, the next logical step is restaurants. And then COVID hit and then we just kind of said, Wow, okay, well, one we need to have because as we as we grew and scaled, you know, coming coming out of your basement is a huge leap for any grower. There’s a lot of people growing really high quality products within their home or in their backyard. Once you have overhead once you have expenses, once you have people that are relying on you for a job, you need to be able to provide consistent revenue year round. And so we just kind of look towards the wholesale machine, we just pivoted really, really hard into grocery once COVID hit because that was what was opened. And it just forced us to go down a really painful path at the beginning but turned into something that really paid off paid off for us in the end,

Stephanie Hansen  04:33

was it I feel like mushrooms were kind of Undiscovered Country because there were the white mushrooms sliced her Hall and then it got fancy and there were the baby Bella’s. And then that was really it. So how receptive were the grocers to bringing all these different types of mushrooms onto the shelves?

Nick Robinson  04:53

Well, so the the a very receptive was the is probably the best answer. So joining our success Inside of farmers markets was was a huge a huge sell point for them but really it took so in like with ones in Belize for instance you know they brought us on and they took they told us they had a category mushrooms as a category and most grocery has been stagnant it just really hasn’t grown because like you said it’s just kind of like oh cool add in mushrooms if I want here’s whites Browns imports like that’s what we got but it coming in the director of produce that London Bailey’s told me one one that I’ve increased the sales inside of their to their mushroom department by 300% since last year, but he said not only that, but I’ve made mushroom sexy again, which is which he’s like it’s a it’s a professional saying, you know, in the industry, but but just makes me laugh every time. I believe we made it fun again, you know,

Stephanie Hansen  05:53

and I believe that because I’m buying your mushrooms and I’m I’m I’m not just buying like what’s in my recipe? Like I’m buying like, oh, maybe I should try these. Maybe I should try those. I’m pushing myself to figure out how to cook these different types of mushrooms. Because it’s just fun to see different creations and different mushrooms have different textures. And so yeah, I can totally see that that would happen is the biggest barrier to get people to try a different kind and to teach them what to do with it.

Nick Robinson  06:24

Yeah, a little bit. So it’s, I think once you get the mushroom fever, you just you kind of want to start trying a whole bunch of them because each one of our mushrooms has a different taste and texture. Just Just everything it goes great in different meals. So once you kind of catch the mushroom bug, it’s it’s it we grow 12 different species on our farm. And that’s that’s very difficult. When you talk to most mushroom farms, they really try and focus on one maybe two species, because just growing one or two species is there’s so many variables that go into it. But we do that for the reason exactly what we’re talking about here. You know, it keeps people interested, engaged and wanting to try new mushrooms and new recipes on the label of every single, you know, packaged mushroom we tried to put all of like, hey, if I didn’t know anything about this mushroom, what do I need to know to kind of know whether to use it in addition or not. And then we use mushrooms like shatat keys and oysters as our gateway mushrooms we call them because that gets that gets people out of the button realm and more into the more nutritious, more more tasty mushrooms.

Stephanie Hansen  07:30

How do you farm mushrooms? Do you literally have like a farm as in, like out in pasture? Or do you have like a production facility with plastic PVC pipes and

Nick Robinson  07:42

that’s more and more option B. So we’re inside of a building. So we basically rent out warehouse space. And then we build these grow rooms inside of this warehouse space. And each room has to be temperature humidity, co2 controlled, light controlled. So luckily, mushrooms are easier to grow inside. Everyone thinks they grow in the dark, they do not grow in the dark, you have to have lights on their phototrophic. So they grow towards light, but they don’t photosynthesize light. So you never want to have them in direct sunlight. But they do need a light source to grow to. But yeah, it’s just a series of of painfully learned lessons of what systems to put in place and how to control them. But But yeah, once you have it up and going it’s it’s a pretty, it’s pretty fun.

Stephanie Hansen  08:25

How did you get the fever of mushrooms?

Nick Robinson  08:29

You know? I have like the the least interesting, you know, CEO story, I guess, if you will, but really it came from so Lance three years ago, almost almost to date actually came to me and just said, Hey, you know, he was working on another venture at the time and said, Hey, what do you take a look at mushrooms. I had just gone back to school, got my MBA, and I was like, I want to start up. Something that just does good for the community makes me happy lets me work with good people, right? Like let’s just start down that path and see what happens and local food systems fulfill that need for me. And so I started out buying blocks and fruiting them in my basement and a little three foot by three foot tents. And once I saw how to grow them tasted them because I wasn’t even a huge fan of mushrooms. When I first started this thing, I was like this is this could be a really good business venture. And then it just kept going and going and now of course I’m a I’m a mushroom lover but but yeah, he started very simply,

Stephanie Hansen  09:32

how did you and Lance meet?

Nick Robinson  09:34

So we met like 10 plus years 10 almost oh god probably 12 years ago now. So we met through mutual friends. my then girlfriend now wife was a part of her friend circle and we just met at a Halloween outing and we just hit it off and we’re just like, man, we’re just like, two peas from different pods here. But yeah, we do. You know we just want to do something together at some point and then this opportunity came up and he had finished his endeavor and was like you know I think I’m ready to engage in this now after about a year in yeah so here it

Stephanie Hansen  10:13

is. So is one of you like the creative and one of you is like the business mind?

Nick Robinson  10:19

Yeah right so Lance is definitely more the the idea person and I definitely help him bring those ideas to life so you know, since we’ve I’m really good with systems I have a sales and marketing background paralegals for most of my life.

Stephanie Hansen  10:35

Clearly it was my next question Who’s the salesperson because

Nick Robinson  10:39

I’m I’m a salesperson, I’m good.

Stephanie Hansen  10:43

I’m just the amount of coverage that you’ve gotten in stores in such a short period of time and also the just the consistency and the quality of the product the branding the packaging, like you guys are on a homerun here

Nick Robinson  10:56

thank you thank you that means a lot yeah it’s it’s been a lot of different iterations and everything to get there but um, but yeah, it’s uh, he is I mean he’s he’s the he’s the right hand man you know, like I everything goes through Lance and I we just bounce ideas and catch things where we need to be it’s I mean, you have a business partner it’s like being married right? Like you’re 100% right? You’re raising this baby together you know and it’s good to have someone you know, you have to just like any marriage You have to have good communication and strong and different yet complementary skill sets for each other so

Stephanie Hansen  11:31

so when you go to the farm, you go to some warehouse and how many employees do you guys have now?

Nick Robinson  11:40

Now we have over 20 employees which is crazy so

Stephanie Hansen  11:44

that is crazy because you only started in what like 2016

Nick Robinson  11:47

No, no, no, we started in 2019

Stephanie Hansen  11:50

okay 19 I thought it was 16 So yeah, so

Nick Robinson  11:53

we can we I yeah we started in like we started in like I’m probably like august of 2018 but really didn’t get like you know, open off the ground until 2019

Stephanie Hansen  12:05

so in a very short time couple of years you’ve amassed 20 employees just that alone is challenging to manage to create systems to create opportunities to create job descriptions like who’s gonna do what must be burning it like at all hours of the night right now

Nick Robinson  12:27

it’s gotten a lot better so before you know when I was first doing this building it was I had a full time job during the first part first year of this and so it was a hot my wife was pregnant as well with our little guy who just turned two so he’s growing right along with this business so yeah, it’s um it’s it’s really really tough the the best thing that I probably got from from my MBA was was just leadership and understanding you know, the The more I understand about leadership the more it’s everything I learned from being a parent has more to do with leadership then than anything else that I’ve learned you know, you know, really really learning to serve your employees to create a place where where they’re okay coming in and trading in their time for that paycheck, you know, we also start everyone else. So from day one, I just said I want to start everybody at $15 an hour and if the business fails, the business fails if I can’t make it work then it’s not worth building off of. So we’ve just have had these things from day one that have just been extra roadblocks in the way but but I’m very I’m very proud of the company that we’ve built. It definitely kind of embodies you know who we are as individuals and how we want to contribute back to the community that we’re in

Stephanie Hansen  13:48

Can you tell me about your worst day

Nick Robinson  13:50

just one or I could this could take up the rest of the podcast no there’s there’s been multiple days there there are so many variables when it comes to mushroom farming and putting in strong processes and procedures is how I’ve combated it but anything from you know entire crops of blocks just just contaminating rooms experiencing you know blocks not having correct burning kitchens controlling the amount of heat in the summertime not not properly sizing my systems. And so those systems fail and I lose an entire crop you know, it’s just it’s, it’s it’s been an ever expanding ladder with greasy rungs that I’ve had to climb up.

Stephanie Hansen  14:39

Oh, I like that description. So tell me about your best day.

Nick Robinson  14:44

best days have been where local partners have believed in us enough to put us on the shelves. So like loans and buyer leads they were our first real major individual, you know, grocery chain that that we didn’t have a lot and they said We’re gonna grow with you, we’re gonna we believe in you, we believe in what you’re doing. They dropped their their mushroom partner of 30 plus years and, and just really dove into us as a brand. And you know, that relationship was forged by knocking on the door, I had no ends this was every relationship that I’ve had have has just been going out there meeting face to face, getting people to know me understand what we stand for, and then following through, so landing those really big key accounts, we just got into all the high V’s in the Twin Cities. You know, that was just a fantastic day, the collapse locally have shown us so much support. East Side Lake wins, Mississippi market, just a slew of Valley natural foods. The list goes on and on. But yeah, every time you find someone who, who really believes in your brand enough to give you business, and then in turn, you’re able to provide them with really exceptional experiences and high quality products. Like that’s just just cool. So I love

Stephanie Hansen  16:07

it. Well, I asked you to partner with us on the makers of Minnesota dinner in November, we had a September dinner, our October dinners coming up when we record this. And we were looking for November makers. We wanted to find people that were unique and different. And as soon as I brought up your mushrooms chef Antonia was like, Yes, mushrooms, I want those mushrooms. And we already had three partners at that point. What I can tell you is is that we added another space to bring your mushrooms in because he was so excited about cooking with them. So cool. Yeah, and we really we’ve had these dinners where you know 70 people came to the first one I think we have up to 90 coming for the second one. And people just are so loving hearing the stories about local Minnesota entrepreneurs, how people got started it’s gonna be really fun to have you be a part of that. What is the biggest barrier to selling mushrooms? Is it like expanding the category or knowledge or education?

Nick Robinson  17:10

You know, I think going back to what you said before i don’t know if i properly answered that question but you really do get people who are like I often love mushrooms or I often hate mushrooms like there is no middle ground in between there. And it’s it’s it’s been the people who love mushrooms, those I mean those are our people obviously. So that’s always a percent of a percent of people that walk into a room. So really, it’s it’s getting people so you have people who are already in the category, they’re already loving everything that we’re putting out because they love mushrooms. And then you have people that like mushrooms but don’t love them so so like hey, yeah, no, I love like Agaricus mushrooms or when they think of mushrooms, they only think of buttons. And then there’s the process of converting those people into the gore means you know, that’s like another tear. And then you have people that just haven’t even heard of them and trying to get into them for the first time or had a really bad experience. And that’s why farmers markets are so powerful I think we’re we kind of let off the gas pedal a little bit on farmers markets, we’re gonna go full bore for next year. Just because we have so many partners around the Twin Cities, farmers markets are a way to just to really sell the product and to get people to see it and understand them and to try them on a very small level. But yeah, it’s, it’s it’s not once they try them and they cook them properly. They come back every single week.

Stephanie Hansen  18:41

It’s really smart research and development because most people use farmer’s markets as their first shot out of the door. And they’re using them to figure out who their target market is talk directly to the customers. But then many of those people once they get into larger productions kind of abandon that route. And I totally have always seen that as a market marketing opportunity more than anything else. So sales are great, but you’re there to market your product and to get in front of new consumers and to encourage them to shop at grocery for your products. So good for you for seeing that because a lot of times I run a market and ours is a specialty market at stone arch festival but people are like oh you know the market cost me $350 I broke even I don’t know my time. I’m like but wait a second. like where do you go from here with this product that you know if it’s something that isn’t something people buy every day like a jelly jam a sauce or whatever, you have to create a demand for it. You have to experience what people want from you. You have to show them how to use it without doing sampling in a lot of grocery stores because the COVID you know you can get into a hyvee though you know you can do it, but then you have to spend time selling those 100 managers You have to find a way to make the product move inside the store. It’s always marketing.

Nick Robinson  20:05

Yes. And so that’s why so a lot of people will come at me and be like, Well, you know, you don’t want to share what you know, because it’s proprietary. And you know, I’m like, man, if somebody can walk through my grow room, see my setup and replicate it and do it better than me. I don’t deserve to be in the industry. Right? That one part is knowing how to grow mushrooms. But a whole nother part is knowing how to actually run a business. A separate part would be actually selling the product. And I think I think most people find themselves in one of the categories where I knew nothing about growing mushrooms. I taught myself from the ground up, but I had a good business running and sales and marketing background so I could drive sales, and I could run a business. So then I got into the mushroom thing, but But yeah, we we actually started up a not on an NPO called the r&r cultivator it’s very underdeveloped right now. But it has two main two main parts to it. One is an education piece, we really do want to get into my wife, as an educator, I worked in education for many years, but having a component that actually pushes into the classroom, mushrooms can be grown inside of classrooms, we have grow kits, it’s super interactive and fun to learn that way. And the second part of it is helping other local growers who may be really good at growing, but don’t understand the business or sales part of it. We do direct store distribution all around the Twin Cities. And so we help other local businesses with their direct deliveries. So we use our route, our delivery route that we’re going on anyway, charge an extremely low fee just to cover our costs, and then we deliver for them. So on top of that, you know, but showing a business, how would we you know, how much you have to sell to be cashflow positive. Most most businesses or most growers don’t understand their numbers, which is why they just tend to just keep running forward. But maybe they’re running in in a wrong direction, you know, so something I’m very passionate about is helping other local growers who are you know, sustainably minded, who pay their people well who you know, run a good business to help them get up and going.

Stephanie Hansen  22:13

So who might be an example of that? So if someone’s listening to this podcast, and they’re like, Oh, I have a broth company, who might be a good person to connect with you to help you or help them with distribution. Maybe they’re doing that themselves. They’re running to all these stores?

Nick Robinson  22:29

Yeah, yeah. So just have them reach out to me, and you can put my email address in there for anybody who’s interested. So the whole purpose of this is not so that I can take a cut of the profits of everything they’re selling. It’s really to empower growers to be as engaged or disengaged as they want to be. If they want to use our distribution system until they have enough money to save up and deliver on their own. Great if they want to use us, you know, in perpetuity. Great. Yeah. But yeah, anybody can reach out to me who has a product that they’re looking to get on the shelf. And if they want to make a business out of it, if you want to stay in your home and have it be kind of a low key thing, I’m still happy to talk to you. But you know, we really want to get in businesses that are looking to feed the masses and that are local, you know, focused on organic practices and clean outputs, you know, sustainably minded and responsible. Like those are the people that I’m looking to invest time into to help their businesses grow.

Stephanie Hansen  23:32

I love it. Well, I can’t wait to meet you in person in November so we can eat mushrooms together at the Lex. If you’re looking for tickets there at the lex mn.com. And I’ll put a link in the show notes. We’ll go from there. Thanks, Nick, for joining us, and thanks for bringing better mushrooms to my grocery stores. I’m so happy.

Nick Robinson  23:51

Thanks for the support. appreciate it so much.

Stephanie Hansen  23:55

We’ll talk soon bye Okay, bye