The sweet, earthy smell of mushrooms roasting permeates the air in the living room as Steve Haas walks into the air-conditioned space after a hot, early afternoon adventure in the surrounding woods.
“God, it smells great in here,” Haas says, looking around. “Life is good at Haashrooms, brother. I can tell you that.”
Haas, 49, is the owner of Steve Haas Mushrooms — or Haashrooms — which is less of an official company and more of a lifelong passion turned business. Each weekend, Haas can be found at the local farmers markets, such as South of the James market in Westover Hills, selling mushrooms he’s either grown or foraged in the Virginia woods from Henrico to as far west as Floyd County beyond Blacksburg.
Haas’s product became such a hit at the farmers markets that chefs started lining up to get his mushrooms on their menus. They have been featured at Pescados China Street, the Yellow Umbrella, the Continental and Mezzanine.
With such demand, the business has turned into a full-time job. Haas, who left his career as a massage therapist, has been able to forge a comfortable living walking in the woods.
“At the height of the season, I can make $5,000 a month,” Haas said.
To supplement his mushroom sales, Haas has begun giving guided tours in the woods to teach others how to hunt for mushrooms. He charges $200 to take out groups of two to six people.
Standing in the kitchen, sprinkling salt over a bowl of fresh white mushrooms, is the key to Haas’s expansion plan.
Craig Perkinson, who until recently was the executive chef at popular Pescados, is taking Haas’s mushrooms and converting them into a line of salad dressings and pestos.
“I had wanted to start developing products we could get into grocery stores,” Haas said. “So when I heard Craig was leaving Pescados, I called him up and said, ‘Dude, you’ve got to come and work with me.’”
For Perkinson, it was an easy career choice.
“It was a no-brainer,” he said. “I obviously knew Steve and knew the product from working with him at the restaurant. So when he called, I didn’t need to really think about it.”
Perkinson is perfecting a recipe for roasted mushroom vinaigrette and several pestos that Haas is aiming to have on grocery shelves by the holiday season.
The goal of the products, Perkinson said, is to bring out the freshness of mushrooms.
Haas plans to charge $9 for the pesto and $10 for the salad dressing, price points he said was reasonable because of the value of the mushrooms in the products.
The morel mushrooms used in the vinaigrette, for example, retail for well over $100 a pound.
The family business
Haas has been hunting mushrooms for as long as he can remember.
His earliest memories of his father include tramping through the West Virginia woods, looking for criminis, golden chanterelles and morels. For the Haas clan, who emigrated from Germany to Virginia at the end of the 18th century, hunting mushrooms has always been a way of life.
“I learned from my father, he learned from my grandfather, and my grandfather learned from my great-grandfather,” said Haas, a father of three. “Now my son is getting into it. He’s really smart — smarter than I was at his age.”
Haas family is tied to the Mead (now MeadWestvaco) paper company but corporate life never appealed to him.
“Ever since I was a kid, I always wanted to be in the woods,” Haas said. “And if there was a creek, that’s where you could find me.”
Haas grew up and pursued massage therapy but never gave up the mushroom hunts. After he married, he began working the farmers market scene and growing his reputation and his business.
“Chefs would come up and see I had wild mushrooms and would go crazy,” he said. “They would say I should make a full-time job of it, because, you know, nobody else was really doing what I was doing.”
A turning point
Then last year, Haas was jolted when his marriage ended in divorce.
“It was a dark time for me,” he said. “I was living out of my car and my daughter’s garage.”
Haas knew the owners of a house on Tuckahoe Plantation and persuaded them to let him live there.
“It is really special living out here,” he said. “I feel really lucky. I mean, I get to hunt mushrooms on the plantations where Thomas Jefferson grew up. How could it get much better?”
Soon after, life took another funny turn when a new flame flickered up. He reconnected with a childhood friend named Liz Broughton, who was also going through a divorce.
“I’ve known Liz since I was 15,” Haas said. “We’re real comfortable around each other.”
Broughton is now an active part of the Haas Mushrooms operation, helping with everything from mushroom hunts to running the stands at the farmers markets to getting the new line of products together.
With a growing crew of friends and family, Haas hopes to have his dressings and pestos on the shelf by the start of the holiday season.
“I think we’re going to be in Ellwood’s,” he said, referring to Ellwood Thompson’s. “I know Libbie Market has expressed some interest, and we’re working on getting into Martin’s as well.”
Haas hopes his family mushroom business will take him to a comfortable retirement in the Pacific.
“I’m just an old hippie who’s raised three kids, and now I’m trying to run a business,” Haas said. “I’m pushing 50, and I want these next 50 years to be about making myself and my family comfortable. And hopefully I can retire and move to