Michael Pan found a new recipe for organic, vegetarian mushroom jerky in a surprisingly old place: It was part of his family history.
Pan, who’s originally from Mississippi, doesn’t seem like your typical foodie on the surface. He has a electrical engineering degree from the University of Illinois and was working for Motorola when he first came across the recipe in 2008 on a trip to Malaysia. But when he tasted the jerky his vegetarian Buddhist relatives had perfected, he knew he wanted to spread it to health-conscious Americans, he said.
“I took a trip to Malaysia to reconnect with family that I hadn’t seen since I was a kid, and on one visit I was offered to try different foods on the table,” Pan said. “I tried this and asked ‘what is it? Is it pork?’ They said ‘no, it’s our family’s mushroom jerky.’”
After falling in love with the recipe, he decided to start his own side business. So, while still at Motorola, Pan created Pan Co Foods, which at the time mostly imported product from family overseas to sell online in the United States.
“I worked through that for a number of years,” Pan said. “But that didn’t help us to grow very big.”
In 2012, he left Motorola and headed to Boston to help a friend work on a startup called Fancred, a sports-related app. He continued with Pan Co Foods as a side business until he and his friend sold Fancred in 2016.
After that, and racking up more associated entrepreneurial experience, he decided to move to Vancouver in the Pacific Northwest, where he also has family, so he could work on transforming Pan Co Foods into a full-fledged company.
“I wanted to bring manufacturing to the Pacific Northwest,” he said. “And I wanted new flavors and ingredients.”
In early 2017, he got set up with a commercial kitchen in Portland to produce the product, since he couldn’t find what he was looking for in Vancouver, he said.
“My goal is to do all of this in Vancouver, but I consider both Portland and Vancouver to both be vital,” Pan said. “I ended up working with a kitchen in Portland because I couldn’t find one in Vancouver that worked for my needs.”
Working with the well-developed foodie scenes in both cities has been a huge help in product development. There’s a lot of expertise in the area when it comes to healthy vegetarian and vegan foods, he noted.
“We’ve been able to find better organic ingredients, and we’ve found a recipe so we can make vegan, as well as vegetarian jerky from talking to other chefs in the region,” Pan said.
Right now, the company has three flavors: original vegan, original vegetarian and zesty Thai vegan jerky. But Pan said he has a few other flavors in the works that will be released soon.
The company recently launched its zesty Thai product at the Winter Fancy Foods Show in San Francisco in January, with much success, Pan said.
“That was one of the biggest ones I’ve done so far,” he said. “We definitely caught people’s eyes in terms of being different and kind of unique.”
For now, Pan Co is importing the organic shiitake mushroom stems it uses to make the product from a source in China. But he hopes to eventually find a source in the Pacific Northwest, he said.
“We only use shiitake stems – that gives us the nice meaty texture that we want,” he said.
“The company we work with is interested in caps. They usually throw the stems away. So we’re another revenue source for them. But I’m also looking for partners in the Pacific Northwest for this particular mushroom we’re using.”
The company is in talks with some Vancouver stores to get product on the shelves, and when it does the stores will be listed on the company’s website at https://www.mushroomjerky.com. Right now, Pan Co has mushroom jerky on sale in Portland, Seattle, online and across the country in several states.
“It is sort of ironic that we’re not in Vancouver yet,” he said.
So far, the company is just Pan and a handful of contract workers in Vancouver and Portland. But he expects things to ramp up soon, and when they do he plans to start hiring and growing his team.
“A big goal is growing and expanding my network,” Pan said. “I’m at the stage where it’s sort of like a garage band that matures to touring. There’s interest in our products from consumers and retail. And I’m trying to deliver and grow this year. I’m really excited about it.”