Article by Yana Samberg
Lead photos by Yana Samberg and provided by Dave and Dee’s
Clockwise from the top: Dave Scherr, Founder of Dave and Dee’s Homegrown Mushrooms | Amy Scherr, Rob Samsal, owners of Dave and Dee’s Mushrooms with son Brayden | Amy Scherr holds an old spore block that was used to germinate and grow the oyster mushrooms that made her dad and mom, Dave and Dee Scherr famous
Dave and Dee’s Homegrown Mushrooms, a mom-and-pop operation that epitomized the farm to table supply chain, has shut down after 14 years.
Inside a white Quonset hut in tiny Sedley, Virginia, the only remnants of a once bustling business are empty plastic containers, cardboard boxes, and aging steel and vinyl office furniture.
The “grow room”, where Dave and Dee Scherr produced hundreds of pounds of oyster mushrooms that supplied dozens of Hampton Roads restaurants and chefs’ imaginations, is hauntingly empty. Dozens of yellow braided cords hanging from metal beams are the only signs of the boutique fungi farm. Bags of spore pods used to hang from the ropes, sprouting the yellow, grey and cream colored mushrooms with their stocky stalks and flattened, feathery ethereal looking caps. Now those grow bags are in the compost pile out back.
Amy Scherr along with fiancé Rob Samsal have been running the business since her father died in late 2014. As her five year-old son Brayden plays with discarded metal pipes nearby, Scherr looks around wistfully at what remains of her parents’ passion project.
Dave and Dee Scherr did not set out to corner the local mushroom market. In 2003, Dave, who loved to cook, couldn’t find the oyster mushrooms he needed for a recipe. By all accounts a dogged and persistent man, he did his research and found there were only 52 oyster mushroom farmers in the country. Dave Scherr, as the story goes, set out to fill a void. He learned cultivation from a Kentucky farmer and brought that knowledge back home to Western Tidewater. Both Dave and Dee Scherr quit their day jobs to pursue their new vocation on their terms. Dave did the growing, delivery and front line customer engagement, while Dee worked the office and the phones. The business, like the mushrooms, grew quickly.
The mushrooms were handpicked and trimmed. Temperature, contamination and water pumps and fans were just some of the things the Scherr family contended with as they tended their sprouting bags of spores. The Scherrs expanded their business to include delivery of other local farmers’ produce, and customers started coming in from Richmond and Williamsburg, as well as Hampton Roads. Acclaim and attention followed. Despite the 100-hour work weeks, things were going well.
But, according to Amy Scherr, a confluence of events made staying in business difficult. First and foremost, the loss of her father hit the family hard. Grey-haired with a crown of curls and wire rimmed glasses, Dave Scherr was the pioneering force behind the business. A week after his death, the family decided to continue the business, with Amy and Rob taking on the bulk of responsibility. Amy ran the grow house. Rob did the deliveries. But increasing gas prices and competition made things difficult.
“Most of our competition comes from people who are doing it as a hobby,” Amy Scherr said. “It’s just hard. We were very fortunate to have a lot of loyal customers who kept us going over the years.”
So earlier this summer Amy Scherr, her mother and Samsal came to a decision. They sent out emails, posted on their Facebook page, made final deliveries and spread the word.
“I told everyone I delivered to that this was the last shipment,” Samsal said, in a quiet voice. “It’s emotional.”
That is how Brian Wegener, executive chef at Esoteric in Virginia Beach, heard about the shutdown. Wegener first started using Dave & Dee’s Mushrooms while on staff at Eurasia Café working with chefs Jarrod Rosenberg and Jesse Wykle.
Wegener appreciated having a personal relationship with the grower/seller. The mushrooms were consistent and he said he knew they were handled with care from the first spore to the last. When he heard the Scherrs were closing down, Wegener said he was “super sad.”
“A few weeks ago I got 15 pounds of beautiful oyster mushrooms and that was when (Rob) informed me they were closing.”
And while Wegener thinks someone will take the opportunity to fill the void left by Dave and Dee’s, he is still disappointed in the turn of events.
“They were a great company to work with. I just wish them the best of luck and hope they will come back,” he said.
Both Scherr and Samsal say the closure is still not real to them. But they are trying to think ahead. Amy is considering going back to school. Rob recently took a new job as a pellet mill operator. They are looking forward to Brayden starting kindergarten. They say they are open to offers on the grow house and have been in discussions with interested parties.
“I just want to say thank you to all our customers. Because of them we were able to keep going,” Scherr said. Then she smiles and quotes her dad as she considers the future.
“Be happy and spread the love.”