We’re proud to announce that the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) has awarded the 2023 Veteran’s Business Outreach Center Excellence in Service Award to the Region X Veterans Business Outreach Center (VBOC) at Business Impact NW. We are grateful for the award and honored to support the incredible veterans, active-duty service members, National Guard and Reserve Component members, members of the Coast Guard, transitioning service members, and military spouses we work with.
Today, we’re celebrating this monumental moment by spotlighting one of our clients, Nathanael Engen of Black Forest Mushrooms. Nathanael is a former Air Force veteran who achieved business success with the help of resources and guidance from Region X VBOC and Business Impact NW.
A Three-Pronged Business Plan
To the unseasoned eye, Black Forest Mushrooms may seem like a small fungi farm that cultivates locally grown gourmet mushrooms—but to founder Nathanael Engen, Black Forest Mushrooms represents a vibrant future for fungi and a stunning example of what sustainable agriculture can be.
Nathanael Engen, a former Air Force veteran, is the rare type of entrepreneur whose intense drive matches their powerful vision. “I’m consistently working as if I’m my own competitor. I would put myself out of business if I could. Just last night I was writing a script and editing a video at 3 am. Then I'm up at the crack of dawn to harvest the mushrooms. At the speed they grow, they’ll overripen within hours. We have three hydrators going and I even have a text-to-speech email reader so I can keep moving.”
Nathanael says Black Forest Mushrooms is more than a farm or a business, it’s a way to bring communities together to eat locally and lead the way toward a sustainable future for other farmers and the farming industry.
“When people ask what I do, I say, I cultivate gourmet mushrooms and healthy communities. I see Black Forest Mushrooms as a potential global community. One that’s centered on local eating, fighting climate change, and uplifting vulnerable communities.”
Bridging the Gap with Fungi to Fork
Nathanael and Black Forest Mushrooms practice what they preach: they produce delicious, highly nutritious, premium mushrooms that combat climate change and strengthen the local food supply chain.
“Through our hyperlocal practices, we are able to take fungi to fork faster than any of our importing competitors. From harvest to your house in a matter of hours rather than days or weeks. That means eliminating 100% of airfreight emissions, zero pesticides, zero chemicals, and our packaging is 100% free of consumer-based plastics.”
In the future, Black Forest Mushrooms plans to initiate a sliding scale for underserved communities which would allow access to a market traditionally occupied by more affluent circles. “The rarity is what makes them gourmet, but they shouldn't be. These are highly nutritious, highly incredible species that come out of nature. Hyper localized farms mean we can make our products affordable and available for vulnerable communities who don’t often have fresh, natural ingredients.”
From the Earth to the Sky and Back
Mushroom cultivation wasn’t Nathanael’s first foray into the agricultural industry. From his very first business as a lawn mower to the summers he spent working on irrigation on local farms in Colorado, Nathanael always had a green thumb and an entrepreneurial spirit. He was particularly fascinated by Controlled Environment Agriculture and that interest followed him into his time serving in the military. Nathanael says, “They had a lot of push for sustainability, composting, and recycling. They were starting to really roll out a lot of those initiatives, but it was a slow rollout.”
After leaving the military, Nathanael took time to re-center, but his interest and dedication to sustainability remained. While reevaluating his future business ventures, Nathanael met Steve Watts-Oelrich, VP of Military and Contracting Programs and Interim Director of the Veteran’s Business Outreach Center (VBOC) at Business Impact NW.
“Bunker Labs had a Veterans in Residence program which is how I met Steve. He introduced me to Business Impact NW and the resources you provide, and I’ve referred over half a dozen people already. Steve is my number one contact, my number one connection. In the early days, Steve gave me clarity, scope, and frame of mind which are extremely valuable for any entrepreneur. He’s been there with me since the beginning, I’m grateful to have him in my corner.”
A Growing Idea Takes Root
Unfortunately, in 2020, the world hit pause—and for the first time, Nathanael was able to take a step back and see the larger picture. There were three central factors that he knew could drive a successful business: multiple barriers of entry, diversification of industries, and a passionate, purpose-driven community. “I wanted a business that could cultivate a community. A sense of camaraderie that I missed from my military service. I also wanted something that can be diversified into multiple industries. I wanted something that had a high barrier for entry on multiple fronts.”
Nathanael started to experiment. First with microgreens, which he found to be too easy, then working up to zucchinis which were too extensive for his small space. None of the crops fulfilled the three core criteria, but one vegetable did stand out: mushrooms. “Compared to microgreens, mushrooms are more involved. They require time, finance, and knowledge. That’s when it hit me—multiple barriers for entry and special equipment are already built in. And with the rise in vegan and vegetarian restaurants and a growing interest in gourmet mushroom foraging, a community was already flourishing.”
Branching Out with VBOC
As an entrepreneur, Nathanael knew he had uncovered his competitive advantage. He consumed every book, article, video, or podcast he could find on mycology and mushroom cultivation. He drew on all his past experiences in farming and community building. But like many small business start-ups, Nathanael says the greatest barrier was and continues to be access to capital. “As an entrepreneur with no shortage of drive or vision, the biggest challenge is finding the opportunity to fight for your ideas. There are strings attached, hoops to jump through, and starting a new business requires an exorbitant amount of upfront cash flow. Most people don’t have family or friends that can support a start-up.”
Nathanael called on Steve who he knew could help him plant strong roots while keeping the bigger picture in mind.
“Steve is a connector, and he truly cares. He introduces me to people he knows would help expand my business. He’ll reach out with opportunities he’s heard about or articles he’s read. He’s seen me struggle in past endeavors and come back, succeed, and thrive. Steve has a knack for recognizing entrepreneurs that want to create something that they and their communities can feel proud of and rally behind. That’s why I wrote the SBA recommendation letter for VBOC. They believed in me, and I believe in them.”
With one-on-one coaching from Steve and the entrepreneurial development services available at VBOC, Nathanael had the financial tools, resource knowledge, and growing business network he needed to launch Black Forest Mushrooms.
The Third Place
Nathanael says he ultimately envisions Black Forest Mushrooms as the third place: a sociological term referring to a social surrounding separate from the home and workplace. “A retail storefront where people can come in for fresh mushrooms is a huge priority, but we’d love a flex space for community engagement. Like, grow kits for kids and events that focus on mushroom-related education.”
With sustainability in mind, Nathanael says their space could also host sustainability workshops and invite farms from across the state to share knowledge. Even further, with such a blossoming food scene, local chefs and food trucks could potentially partner with Black Forest Mushrooms and offer demonstrations for mushroom-forward dishes, with recipes to share. “We want people to reframe how they think of mushrooms. Most people don’t know how to cook mushrooms, and they only see week-old mushrooms at the store. When you see Black Forest Mushrooms, they’re stunning. Once you eat them, you’ll understand why I’m certain this will be a billion-dollar business.”
A Mushrooming Business
Nathanael feels Black Forest Mushrooms is a purpose and passion he can nurture for the rest of his life.
“We’re positioning ourselves to be the craft brewery of mushroom cultivation. As an entrepreneur, variety is something I have to consider. Am I going to do this for just two or three years and then I’m done? No, I could stay mentally and physically engaged in this business until I die. No matter how much the company grows, I will still be at the farmers markets. I’ll still be on the frontlines because I see value in that.”
Black Forest Mushrooms products are available through their Fungi to Fork weekly delivery service, servicing Western Snohomish, Southwest Skagit, and Northwest King County. The waitlist is first come, first served, but Nathanael and Black Forest Mushrooms products can also be found at weekly farmers markets in Snohomish, Woodinville, Shoreline, and Lake Stevens.
About the author
Janelle is a storyteller through and through. She was raised in a family of entrepreneurs who owned and managed a series of small businesses, including a Hawaiian restaurant, a video store, and several real estate properties. Growing up in a low-income community but attending schools as a minority in affluent areas, she struggled with the inequities she faced each day.
Janelle graduated with a degree in Creative Writing, specializing in screenwriting and playwriting. She has worked for a number of nonprofits and has remained steadfast in her commitment to using her craft to support the missions of each organization, and uplift underserved communities throughout the Bay Area.