A 12-Year-Old Mushroom Mogul
What grows in Te'Lario Watkins's basement goes on menus across Columbus
|Jul 10, 2020|
By Amber Gibson
As a first-grader, Te’Lario Watkins loved growing things, and he didn’t want to stop when temperatures dropped in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio.
After his herbs died, he wanted to try mushrooms, which could grow inside, in the dark, oblivious to the weather. His parents, both science majors, supported the idea. “When our kids like something,” says Te’Lario's mom, LaVanya Watkins, “they know that we fully support it—but we don’t do anything halfway.”
Within weeks, the mushroom kit they established in the basement was thriving. It seemed to double in size each day, and that got the family’s attention. None of them had experience with fresh mushrooms, they say, but they quickly incorporated them into their diet—in tacos, omelettes, frittatas, and grilled cheeses.
Looking for other ways to use their harvest, Te’Lario and his family launched Tiger Mushroom Farms in 2015. Te’Lario cultivated a local following, and before long he earned attention from national media. “After I was on the Steve Harvey Show, it was getting really exciting,” he says. “I thought, I can go higher and do more with this. Instead of just a hobby, I can make it something I want to do for a living. This is just part of my career, though. I also want to be the president of the United States.”
He is a charismatic salesman, charming farmers’ market customers with a megawatt smile and mushroom bacon samples. “We have a lot of people at the market thinking that we tricked them, thinking that it’s actual bacon,” he says. “It’s funny to see their reaction when they figure out that it’s actually mushrooms and not pork.”
Te’Lario’s basement now produces about a hundred pounds of shiitake and oyster mushrooms per week. His plans for expansion include securing a warehouse space so he can get to work growing more varieties: cremini, portobello, lion’s mane. He’s already selling to Columbus-area restaurants including Ambrose and Eve, Sassafras Bakery, and Flatiron Tavern.
Ultimately, he says, he hopes to use his business to bring fresh ingredients to food deserts and encourage kids to eat better. He has published a book about starting his business, and he has spoken about healthy eating and entrepreneurship at schools and churches around Columbus. At this rate, he just might end up in White House by 2044.
Amber Gibson is a Chicago-based freelance journalist specializing in travel, food and wine. Her work has appeared in Saveur, Travel + Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler, Departures, Forbes, NPR, NBC, Four Seasons Magazine, Hemispheres and Artful Living. Follow her adventures on Instagram @amberyv.