It’s a weekday morning in November, and a box truck filled with nearly 3,000 pounds of the Bay Area’s wild mushroom supply just arrived at a mostly empty parking lot outside a bank in Berkeley.
There are no food inspectors or health officials on the scene as three bearded men wearing flannels, hoodies and cargo pants exchange hundreds of dollars' worth of fungus for cash, representing just a tiny fraction of the daily business they do.
By the end of the day, the mushrooms will find their way from the parking lot to restaurant kitchens and stores across the San Francisco Bay Area.
Two of the men—mushroom distributor Lucas Vrana and a friend who said he was just along for the ride—spent all night driving from Oregon with a truck full of chanterelles, matsutakes and other in-season species of mushroom they managed to snag from a network of 80 or so foragers.
The other man, Max Hunter, is one of roughly eight Bay Area mushroom brokers the distributors work with. Hunter acts as a middleman between foragers, other brokers and the dozens of restaurants he sells to.
The health department hasn’t certified any of these mushrooms for commercial consumption—but that’s because no such certification exists, the men explained.
“Basically, you just go into the restaurant, you hand them mushrooms, and they hand you cash,” Hunter said, who added he keeps a record of his sales and pays taxes. “It’s kind of a [legal] gray area in California.”
For some, this revelation may be jarring, considering how many mushroom varieties are deadly. But many people who work in the clandestine industry argue the system has long operated this way without issue.
Stu Heard, executive director at the California Poison Control System, said the state hasn’t seen a single instance of a restaurant-related mushroom poisoning in the agency’s history.
“Over the years, we’ve had people go out and forage mushrooms on their own and end up poisoned, sometimes dying,” Heard said. “I haven’t heard about a connection to restaurants.”
For many in the mushroom game, the absence of injury speaks for itself.
Chefs say the lack of regulation means they get the freshest ingredients possible. The backdoor deals also provide foragers more freedom to spend time in the forest—rather than behind a desk filing paperwork.
“We’re talking about a huge underground market that’s happening year after year,” said Ian Garrone, owner of Far West Fungi, a business with stores in San Francisco’s Ferry Building and Santa Cruz. “And anytime you hear of a poisoning, it’s coming from somebody who is an amateur.”
‘A Can of Worms’
It turns out that few people participating in California's wild mushroom market know whether it's legal to do so.
When asked about the rules and regulations surrounding the wild mushroom trade, the California Department of Public Health sent The Standard a pamphlet urging caution when picking wild mushrooms and directed further questions about sales to the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the Mycological Society of San Francisco.
The agriculture department said the agency “doesn’t have a role” in the wild mushroom trade. Ken Litchfield, the mycological society’s cultivation expert, said the rules around selling wild mushrooms in California are unclear. The San Francisco Department of Public Health directed questions back to the state health department.
Litchfield said state officials approached the mycological society about regulating the wild mushroom trade approximately 30 years ago, but they ultimately deemed the effort too arduous.
“They just really quickly saw this is a can of worms, and if they open it, they’re not going to be able to regulate it,” Litchfield said.
Chefs, restaurateurs and foragers told The Standard they’re unsure if what they’re doing is totally legal. However, they said there remains no other method to buy authentic wild mushrooms, leaving them making deals in parking lots and sneaking through the back doors of restaurants.
Even Far West Fungi, one of the largest mushroom suppliers on the West Coast, obtains roughly a quarter of its mushrooms from small-time foragers and brokers such as Hunter or Vrana. The other three-quarters of its mushroom supply is cultivated.
“I’m not sure the legality of this to be quite frank,” said Anthony Paone, head chef at Bull Valley Roadhouse in the Bay Area’s Port Costa, who buys his mushrooms from Hunter.
Litchfield said the market largely regulates itself as participants ostracize sellers who operate without the necessary knowledge and precautions. Hunter told The Standard he carries an insurance policy that protects him from liability if someone gets sick.
Vrana, who learned the trade of mushroom hunting from his father in the 1990s, is among those who said he would feel more comfortable if professional foragers were required to take aptitude tests. Commercial pickers are required to obtain licenses from the U.S. Forest Service, but those permits don't verify their knowledge of mushrooms.
Vrana said he takes extreme care to examine his product before distribution, but he worries that novice mycologists could make mistakes.
“I’m kind of scared one day something might happen,” Vrana said. “Somebody might get poisoned. When it happens, they might shut down the whole business.”
Vrana was arrested for allegedly “poaching” mushrooms on private property in Santa Barbara County in 2006. He told The Standard there was no evidence and he was framed by competitors, who were angry he no longer sold them mushrooms. He spent five months in jail and ultimately pleaded down from grand theft to a misdemeanor trespassing charge.
"It was horrible. Just simply horrible," Vrana said.
In 2005, a Los Angeles health official briefly halted the sale of wild mushrooms after he became aware they were being sold unregulated, according to the LA Times, but the restriction ultimately ended as people continued to sell wild fungi across the region.
“The peasants would be revolting,” Paone joked as he considered what would happen if the health department tried to regulate wild mushrooms. “It’s so entrenched that it would take some sort of unfortunate or catastrophic event before it’d be on the health department’s radar.”
In 2004, Garrone, of Far West Fungi, took his family’s business mainstream, securing a spot at the Ferry Building. But on the path to legitimacy, Garrone said he faced a battle with San Francisco's health department, which initially said he couldn’t operate in the city.
Eventually, he said, the state’s health department stepped in and allowed the storefront to open because of the company’s history “of not killing people.”
“There’s just no funding in it, … nobody to enforce it,” Garrone said. “It’s a little secret that nobody really wants to talk about.”
He said he wishes the California Department of Public Health would issue a clearer pathway to legitimacy for mushroom vendors and foragers.
“It seems like every health department, every county has their own interpretation of the rules,” Garrone said. “For a lot of people, living in that gray area is a little off-putting.”
‘If The Hammer Ever Came Down’
For foragers such as Hunter, the cost of legitimacy may outweigh the benefits.
Hunter said he often works 90-hour weeks, collecting and selling wild mushrooms from the forest floor and other foragers. He mostly lives on the road, driving all over the state and beyond, sleeping in his Scion sedan and chasing the best conditions for fungi picking.
“You get lost out there,” Hunter said. “Time loses all meaning.”
Hunter said he makes just a few dollars on every mushroom batch he buys from other brokers. At 19 years old, he quit his job grooming horses at the Golden Gate Fields because he estimated he could make the same amount of money selling mushrooms. Since then, he found it doesn’t matter how much money he makes, as long as he can keep foraging.
In December, Hunter said he was buying chanterelles for $8.50 a pound and selling them for $13.50.
“If everyone had to get a license, a lot of people would get out of the game for sure,” Hunter said. “It may not be financially profitable anymore.”
His partners described Hunter as a workhorse and an expert on the topic. Paone said he met Hunter in 2005 and implicitly trusts him to deliver safe, high-quality mushrooms.
“He comes in and almost doesn’t make a peep until you see him,” Paone said, describing Hunter quietly letting himself into the restaurant, carrying a fresh batch of shrooms.
Paone is among those who believe the wild mushroom trade is better off left without regulation.
“If the hammer ever came down and there was ever some health department overreach,” Paone said, “all I can say is I had a good run.”