Hi, my name is Belkacem but people call me Bel (that’s me on the right). I grew up in the Atlas Mountains near the Mediterranean Sea in an area that used to be called the pantry of the Roman Empire. I have lived in this country since 1984, and was an entrepreneur and the proprietor of 6 successful restaurants that provided jobs and services to employees and customers for more than 25 years.
I founded Mamacita’s restaurant in 1989 and successfully maintained its operation for 23 years. My contribution to Mexican food in Chicago consisted of an emphasis on fresh, local and vegetarian ingredients as an alternative to heavy pork and beef centered dishes. I was also the owner of Icosium Kafe, a Mediterranean style restaurant/Creperie that introduced tagines, couscous, merguez and gluten free crepes to the Chicago restaurant scene. I was fortunate to be able to work and flourish in a field that I enjoyed, while simultaneously providing jobs and innovative dining experiences in the Chicago area. In many ways, my work in the restaurant business was a natural progression from my roots as a farmer.
My family has been dedicated to agriculture for generations and generations. As a child and a young man, I learned about cultivating citrus trees, and vineyards from my father and grandfather; how to graft branches from one variety of plant to another, by sealing the new appendage with nothing more than mud and dried grass. I also learned how to preserve fruits, vegetables and meats, for the off season. I used to go foraging for mushrooms, many times picking up truffles, morel and escargots.
As an adolescent, I was in charge of the vegetable fields, and every morning I tended the plants, and took my harvest to the village market along with my foraged fungi. In the fields I learned the efficiency and complexities of ancient irrigation systems, and how to build canals that could maximally channel water to each and every plant. These early influences served as the basis for my interest in engineering and entrepreneurship. As a teenager, I was selected by the government to attend an elite boarding school for young engineers where I studied mechanical engineering. Upon my graduation, I obtained a job with the World Bank that took me to West Africa: Togo, Ghana, and Benin where I worked on the infrastructure of food processing and agriculture.
Fruiting Mushrooms is an Illinois urban farm located at the Plant Chicago. The act of fruiting mushrooms or mycology is science, engineering and ancient agriculture, all my passions combined. Sustainability, energy efficiency and environmental consciousness in an urban setting is a must this days. Knowing that Chicago has one of the largest number of unoccupied and sometimes abandoned buildings and factories right next to the downtown, I knew I wanted to utilize these spaces for my farm.
Since last year I have been volunteering at Plant Chicago, an innovative business incubator dedicated to sustainability and energy efficiency of organic food production and processing. The Plant is located in a reclaimed hundred year old meat packing factory. This is where our farm is located, and where we plan to expand the business as a part of this supportive community.
Chicago has a diverse ethnic grocery stores, farmers markets, restaurant scene with great chefs and a huge, well informed and environmentally responsible consumer base. Supplying the Chicago market with fresh specialty mushrooms harvested daily within a mile from the dinning rooms is an idea that can be easily realized and Fruiting Mushrooms, LLC has been doing this since May 2015.
We have been using scientifically proven methods; from the petri dish, to the harvest. We work in environmentally responsible conditions, using only organic ingredients, supplied by Midwestern small farms. Not only do we fruit different types of mushrooms, we also sell our spent straw logs and sawdust fruiting blocks to a local worm farm, local landscaping companies, and to the anaerobic digester located in the same building where clean energy (from methanol gas) and organic fertilizer will be produced. Nothing goes to waste.
We have a strong customer base and it’s consistently expanding, at this point, we just can’t produce enough. Local Foods, Sugar Beet Co-op, Lula Café and The Cottage on Dixie, are just a few places where you can find our products (to list only a few).
Our doors are always open to tours, internships and volunteers to hopefully inspire future entrepreneurs. Our goal is to continue building a team that can develop and improve this business model where urban mushroom farming, mycelium production for packaging and building materials is the norm and easily duplicated in all cities around the country, and where the idea of local fresh food and medicinal mushrooms is a reality for generations to come.
As our logo states: “The Environment is Always On Our Mind”.
The funds from Kiva Zip will be used for:
Organic certification $2,800
Improve the fruiting space $5,000
This investment will also help create two full-time jobs and open more internship opportunities.