Kanata-based company Heartee, co-founded by Ottawa’s Rob Imbeault, offers 14 locally-grown varieties of gourmet mushrooms.A Kanata-based company co-founded by Ottawa’s Rob Imbeault is bringing unique flavours to restaurants and homes across the city, starting with a shipping container near the corner of Elgin and MacLaren streets. Heartee grows and sells 14 varieties of gourmet mushrooms that aren’t typically found in the grocery store, all within 10 kilometres of a customer's backyard. Imbeault said his interest in gourmet mushrooms started because of their medicinal uses. But such mushrooms weren’t readily available locally, so he and his collaborators decided to get creative. “We realized that these mushrooms that we like wouldn’t survive traditional distribution,” he said. “They can’t sit in a warehouse for a few days; their shelf life is too short. We realized that you have to grow them very close to the customer.” As a result, Heartee takes a “hyper-local” approach to farming. In 2013, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency expanded its definition of “local food” to mean any food produced within the province where it’s sold, or 50 kilometres across provincial borders from the province where it was grown. But hyper-local food, according to Imbeault, is grown just 10 kilometres from the customer. It’s a concept that Heartee thinks of “as not being a gimmick, but rather a movement.” Heartee embraces the concept of hyper-local by growing its mushrooms in the heart of downtown Ottawa. The company designed grow spaces to fit inside shipping containers, which can be moved or placed wherever there’s enough space. And because mushrooms don’t require light, the unit is powered by solar. The first prototype was placed in a parking lot on MacLaren Street, just a block from Elgin Street. Heartee has since started operating three more at Area X.O, an agritech smart farm in Nepean operated by Invest Ottawa. “We moved fast,” Imbeault said. “We had the hypothesis, so we weren’t afraid to fail. The first five we made didn’t really work that well, but the mushrooms themselves are pretty resilient.” By appearance alone, Heartee’s gourmet mushrooms are much different from the white button variety in the grocery store. The company grows several oyster varieties, such as the meaty pink oyster with a mild seafood taste; the sweet, earthy pearl oyster; and the savory licorice-like blue oyster. It also grows a furry white variety that can pass as a lobster or crab alternative. Most recently, Heartee introduced the chestnut variety, a smaller brown mushroom with a rich nutty taste.For the first few months, Imbeault said the company worked with Jordan Holley, the head chef at Riviera on Sparks Street, to test out the mushroom varieties until the quality was consistent. Once the product was solid, Heartee expanded to other local restaurants. “(Chef Jordan) pretty much opened the network,” Imbeault said. “Chefs are not really competitive, they’re more additive. They’d give us a Rolodex of other chefs in the city and the other chefs did that, too.” He added, “Our big ‘aha’ moment was that chefs really wanted something consistent. Of course they want quality, they want something unique, but if you can’t be consistent, they can’t put it on their menu. And it’s nature, so we have to overgrow to make sure we have supply.” On the other side of the equation, Imbeault said there’s been no shortage of demand. After establishing the company as a reliable supplier of unique mushrooms to local chefs, Heartee started expanding into retail. In less than a year, the company has opened more farms and placed products in dozens of retail stores across Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver. It’s also in the process of launching in Montreal, with future plans to expand to Calgary and New York City. Heartee is also in early talks with Loblaws that would see its grow containers in the parking lots of the big grocery retailer. “You see these products that are in these high-end restaurants, then you taste them and you’re like, ‘Wow, these are awesome,’” Imbeault said. “They’re kind of new, kind of trendy. Then you actually see them in the grocery store over time. It’s kind of like (in fashion), where you see it on the runway and then make it accessible to everyone. It’s that kind of approach.” Heartee also helps customers learn how to cook with the mushrooms. The team at Heartee is active on social media to give home cooks inspiration and they incorporate QR codes into the packaging to give customers easy access to recipes. “We’ve been getting amazing feedback,” Imbeault said. “People are doing unboxing videos and posting and tagging us. It’s pretty cool to see.”
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Chestnut mushroom variety growing in Heartee's downtown Ottawa grow space (Supplied)
Yellow oyster mushroom variety growing in Heartee's downtown Ottawa grow space (Supplied)