John Anderson didn’t set out to create one of the United States’ most prominent wholesale food distributors. He simply wanted to leave his job as a millworker in Bingen, Washington, just outside of White Salmon.
“It was a dead-end job, going nowhere,” Anderson said. “I dreaded it. I looked forward to Friday nights and hated Monday mornings.”
In 1982, Anderson started selling mushrooms that he had foraged from nearby forests to a traveling buyer, who then sold them to restaurants. Then Anderson started selling directly to a few eateries in Portland.
Two years later, he left his mill job and with his wife, Wanda, started Foods in Season (FIS), which has grown from a small operation run from the Andersons’ garage to an international company that sells products to some of the top restaurants and grocery chains in the country.
FIS now has 40 full-time employees and operates out of two large warehouses in the Port of Camas-Washougal’s industrial park in Washougal.
“The pioneers, they’re the ones that have the arrows in their backs,” Anderson said. “I think we are pioneers because back then it wasn’t even an industry. You didn’t have a team of buyers and a network of managers out there. It was just me and my wife alongside the road with our sign. The learning curve was the steepest in the early days.”
Anderson started with morel mushrooms, but slowly expanded to include 25 different mushroom species from all over the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, Canada and Europe. Today FIS also distributes a wide variety of wild greens, fish and meats sourced from a large number of countries.
FIS buys products directly from farmers, fish catchers and foragers, prepares the products for shipment at its Washougal warehouses, then ships the products to restaurants and stores. Some of the world’s top chefs, such as Wolfgang Puck, are on FIS’ client list.
The company boasted a 98-percent success rate delivering more than 75,000 boxes in 2018, according to its website.
“We’re not lying about the quality of our products. I can say that 85 percent of what we sell is foraged or fished or farmed from the Pacific Northwest, an unparalleled region as far as raw food products go,” said Francois de Melogue, a former chef and FIS customer who now performs marketing functions for the company. “We also provide great customer service. We’re old fashioned, in a sense; we make deals based on handshakes. If a customer is not happy with their shipment, they won’t pay for it.”
FIS moved to Vancouver in 2000, then to Washougal in 2001.
“The business was growing, and we were making too many trips to the airport,” Anderson said. “It’s close to the airport, easy to get to the airport. The Port is great to work with. The community is wonderful. I’m blessed. I have four grandchildren and they’re all here. My kids, I see them every day I come to work when I’m not golfing. They pretty much run the day to day stuff.”
Anderson credited his children — older son, Johnny, younger son, Jerad, and daughter, Amy — for taking the company “to the next level.”
“Pardon the pun, but the business has mushroomed, and a lot of that is due to the Anderson kids,” de Melogue said. “We’re this big company, and we sell to 5,000 restaurants nationwide, and every top chef in the country buys something from us. But on the other hand, we’re still run by the Andersons in a small family environment, which is awesome. You can walk into the warehouse when you want to and stick your hands in boxes. There are no secrets. It’s an open-book company.”
When Anderson was just starting out, he was contacted by a man from Chicago who was interested in buying some mushrooms in bulk. The man — Anderson doesn’t recall his name — came to White Salmon to meet with Anderson, who received some life-changing advice.
“If he hadn’t come out and really pushed me, I would’ve probably stayed at the mill,” Anderson said. “I remember going to dinner one night with him and his wife, and he said, ‘Follow your passion.’ I was really passionate about (mushrooms).”
Anderson, who grew up just north of White Salmon on a cattle ranch operated by his father, was introduced to foraging by his mother, who took him to nearby forests to hunt wild morel mushrooms when he was a boy.
“I was only 5 or 6, just a young kid. But every spring I would do it because I loved eating them, and it was like Easter egg hunting,” he said. “You have to train your eyes to find these things. I would pick them and take them home to my mom and she would cook them up with scrambled eggs or whatever she prepared them with.”
Those outings led Anderson to a lifelong passion.
“I loved being out in the woods,” Anderson said. “I love hunting for these mushrooms, especially in the fall when there’s a lot of varieties, and they’re in different colors and shapes, and whether there’s a lot or a little, you never know. You hope for a big crop, but you never know, because it’s weather related.”
Anderson still makes the time to go out a couple of times every fall to forage. That sense of discovery and wonder will probably never leave him.
“I go out just for my own fun,” he said. “I know some good spots, and I go to them. I like going through the woods, picking huckleberries right off the vine and eating them and finding my little pockets of mushrooms out there.”