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Apartment-to-Table? Exotic Mushroom Farm Sprouts in Humboldt Park

By Paul Biasco | November 23, 2015 6:17am
 Roman Titus, founder of Sojourn Fare, examines a mushroom in his homemade lab in Humboldt Park.
Roman Titus, founder of Sojourn Fare, examines a mushroom in his homemade lab in Humboldt Park.
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DNAinfo/Paul Biasco

HUMBOLDT PARK — Roman Titus' second floor apartment looks like the type of place Walter White would feel at home.

While Titus's mushroom operation is of the legal variety, even his neighbor was taken aback when he walked into what was once a spare bedroom earlier this year.

"He was like, you’ve just upped your 'Dexter' factor by a ton," Titus said.

Over the past 10 months, Titus dove head first into the world of mushroom growing.

His venture, Sojourn Fare, is in the early stages, but Titus envisions creating an urban mushroom farm that will use waste material such as coffee grounds or spent grain from a brewery to help grow hard-to-find mushrooms.

Ideally he would like to work with Chicago chefs to produce uncommon strains for their restaurants.

"Let's find a mushroom that nobody is growing around here, that we have to go to Korea to find, and figure out how to grow it, and you can offer that as a piece," Titus said.

Roman Titus works in his sterile lab inside his Humboldt Park apartment. [DNAinfo/Paul Biasco]

Titus, a 34-year-old with fond memories of foraging for morrels with his family as a kid in Ohio, has been building a growing laboratory in his Humboldt Park apartment for months.

It all started with a TED talk he stumbled upon on YouTube titled, "6 ways mushrooms can save the world."

Since then he has converted a spare bedroom into a grow lab with a humidity tent and an office into a sterile lab.

The rest of the apartment, specifically the kitchen and bathroom, is littered with growing equipment.

"You hear when someone has a kid you understand a lot about life by being a father, by trying to train a kid," Titus said. "[This] feels like a similar thought expirament."

A humidity-controlled tent that Titus built inside a spare bedroom. [DNAinfo/Paul Biasco]

Titus, who works as a brand and design consultant when he's not growing mushrooms, admits his obsession sounds a bit wacky at glance.

He thought so too until he entered a seed-funding pitch event that focused on companies in Chicago's sustainability movement earlier this month.

His mushroom company won.

"Up until then a lot of this had just been in my head," Titus said. "That was the first time that I put it out to the public where it kind of feels like your baby and you're insecure, but it was well received."

With the $4,000 seed money from Building Opportunities for Original and Sustainable Thinking (BOOST), Titus plans to build an industry-standard sterile lab in his apartment to work with spawn and cultures.

“BOOST allows community members to directly invest and support the innovations that they want to see in Chicago,” said Sam Schiller, co-chair of Delta Emerging Leaders. “This year’s slate represents just how innovative and forward-thinking the sustainability movement is here in Chicago."

While Sojourn Fare is still in the early stages, Titus hopes to either move into a larger basement space and remain a small project or take on investment to open a commercial farm.

It's likely he will go the bootstrap route and keep it small and work with individual chefs.

"When you start to get into mushrooms that are off the grid, for most people it’s a bit of a scary venture and theres a lot of education around that," Titus said. "I think chefs appreciate that off-the-gridness already. It allows you more freedom to explore new strains, new ways of doing them.”

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