When Kathi Lafferty heard that exhibits from the closed Phillips Mushroom Museum were available, she jumped at the chance to display them. “I couldn’t pass these museum pieces up,” says Lafferty, owner of The Mushroom Cap, a boutique at 114 W. State St. “I just couldn’t.”
Out went the baby department of her adjoining business, The Growing Tree, and in went giant white and shiitake mushrooms, shipping labels, a wooden pick and knife, and other assorted artifacts and paraphernalia related to the Kennett Square mushroom industry.
“I’m calling it a Mushroom Industry Exhibit,” says Lafferty, who went so far as to convert a small closet into a mini mushroom house, complete with a tin roof over the door, cinderblock wallpaper and Mexican music.
When it comes to celebrating the area’s favorite fungi, call Lafferty “Ms. Mushroom.” Not only is she the owner of The Mushroom Cap—the area’s first boutique dedicated to all things ‘shroom-like—but she is also the volunteer coordinator of the Mushroom Festival, a weekend event that draws more than 100,000 people to Kennett Square.
“Kathi’s enthusiasm for Kennett Square and for the mushroom industry is just remarkable,” says Mary Hutchins, executive director of Historic Kennett Square.
“She’s been the one to really motivate the industry and the community around the Mushroom Festival and has taken over where the Phillips family left off by showcasing the past, present and future of the industry, which is not only important to the local economy, but the leading cash crop in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” says Jim Angelucci of Phillips Mushroom Farms.
Lafferty’s enthusiasm for mushrooms is understandable given that her husband, Tom, and his brothers Phil and Steve are the third-generation owners of P.A. Lafferty & Sons Inc. Both Kathi and Tom are native to the area.
Their mothers were in the same high school graduating class, and her father father had an electrical contracting business in town, so he worked for a lot of mushroom growers.
Yet Kathi says she wasn’t into mushrooms all that much until she met her husband. Of course, she met him in first grade, she says.
Lafferty’s foray into entrepreneurship started in 1984, when she opened The Growing Tree, a consignment shop for children’s clothing, in her Landenberg home. She bought the building on West State Street in 1997, and ran the business out of both locations until 2000, when her children were out of school.
Clothing made way for mushrooms in 2004, when The Growing Tree began sharing its space with The Mushroom Cap. Tourists sparked the idea for the new business.
“People were coming into town saying, ‘Where can I buy fresh mushrooms?’,” Hutchins recalls. “Kathi was intuitive enough and flexible enough to develop something.”
For Lafferty, it was a natural. “The area is known for mushrooms, so why not promote it?” she says.
That is exactly what she had been doing for the past three years. The store’s offerings include necklaces with mushroom charms, a mushroom-shaped cutting board, tea towels with embroidered mushrooms, and T-shirts with the phrase “Shiitake Happens.” And that’s just to start.
Finding mushroomy items was challenging at the start, says Lafferty, who’s worked with artists and craftspeople from as far as Charleston, N.C., to create products. At a recent gift show in Atlanta, however, she was pleased to find more items. She’s recently added whimsical pieces like organic bibs with “Cute as a Button” imprinted on them. (Buttons are a type of mushroom.)
“Kennett Square” is prominently displayed on many of the items. “I get a lot of tourists,” Lafferty explains. Indeed, her guestbook entries note customers from Kuwait, Australia, Chile and Hong Kong. “It’s unbelievable,” Lafferty says with pleasure.
In addition to the boutique products, Lafferty also sells fresh and dried mushrooms, including hard-to-find varietals such as morels and porcini mushrooms. Maitake, also known as “hen of the woods,” has recently received press for its antioxidant qualities.
“I took them over to a friend’s and we saut/ed them with garlic and oil—they were delicious,” Lafferty says of maitake. At home, she combines her exotic mushrooms with the white mushrooms that her husband grows.
The top-selling item in the store, however, is packaged mushroom chowder, which she prepares in the store on the Friday Art Strolls and in winter. She often throws a handful of fresh mushrooms in the mix.
As if the store and Tom’s business is not enough, Lafferty has taken her mission to promote mushrooms to the streets. She volunteers her time as the executive director of the Mushroom Festival.
Moreover, Lafferty, Dennis Melton and Al Willard, owner of Harrington’s Coffee Co., are spearheading the fundraising effort to paint “Mushroom Capital of the World” on the Kennett Square water tower.
The total cost is about $12,000. Donors of $50 or more will have their names placed on a permanent plaque.
Lafferty is also partnering with other businesses to spread the word. She’s working with the State Street Grill to serve as a stop for tour buses. Participants can visit the store and then have lunch, featuring mushrooms, at the restaurant.
But her baby right now is the Mushroom Industry Exhibit, which fills the void left when Phillips Mushroom Museum, formerly on Baltimore Pike in East Marlborough Township, closed.
She is enthusiastic about the wooden pick and knife from a spawn company. “Now they’re all plastic,” she notes. She’s thrilled with the large white mushroom with each of the parts—gill, cap, etc.—neatly labeled.
Lafferty has spruced up some of the old exhibits, and she’s added her own touch to the collection, including a collage of packing room scenes. She’s thrilled with the new closet-turned mushroom house. Guests peer through a hole in the door to see the life-size photograph of the mushroom house. “It’s so cool!” she says.
With only so much space, she’s scaled back on The Growing Tree. As of January 2007, she stopped taking consignments. “There wasn’t another half of me to do that.”
But there’s no doubt she’ll keep making time for fungi. “I love doing the mushroom thing,” she concludes.
Tuesday, August 28, 2007 3:32 PM EDT
Business Ledger Staff Writer