Tigard-based Cascade Organic is a specialty food business that supplies some of the region’s finest restaurants.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic struck last year, company owner and founder Jeff Michels was faced with an existential threat to his business model. With restaurants and other service industry businesses shut down out of public health necessity, Michels and his Tigard warehouse found themselves losing a big chunk of their customers virtually overnight.
“It’s been pretty devastating,” Michels admitted during a recent interview.
In response, however, he dug down deep and relied on the survival instincts honed by years of experience as a mountaineering guide and outdoorsman. Instead of selling exclusively to commercial clients, why not sell his wares to the community directly as well?
“The spirit of entrepreneurship is definitely inside me and I’ve dealt with it,” he said. “Just like with losing my hearing very quickly, and prior to that I was a mountaineering guide, things always go wrong, so you always have to be flexible. If you’re stuck in a black and white world, you’re out of business right now.”
After some scrambling and more than a few sleepless nights, Michels and a pared-down crew of employees found a solution. To counter the slowdown in restaurant sales and provide social distancing to the community along with high quality healthy food, they opened home delivery and pick-up options for customers looking to buy fresh organic produce, wild-foraged mushrooms, wild-caught fish and seafood and local meats.
A microgreen farm was originally part of Cascade Organic’s urban farm. With the pandemic, Michels pivoted from specialty items like edible flowers to focus on consumer staples such as an Urban Farm Salad Mix, Asian Perilla leaf, and baby greens. They are also adding stem flowers to the urban farm to add to bi-weekly Cascade Boxes and for order on their website.
Cascade Organic now offers deliveries every Thursday, along with customer pick-up at their warehouse at 9452 S.W. Tigard St. near downtown Tigard. Near-daily specials on the company’s website and social media channels alert the public to what’s fresh.
“We decided to bring our great local products to home chefs in addition to our chef partners in Portland and across the country,” he said. “But we also ship quite a bit of wild foraged products across the country, like wild mushrooms.”
Michels learned about wild, edible foods from years spent as a wilderness guide.
“I took people all over the world,” he said. “I learned a lot about wild foods, and Cascade Organic really started from weekend forages with my daughters when I was much younger. We’d pick mushrooms, clean them and drive them downtown to sell to chefs.”
They made a little money, learned more about native plants each time, and they enjoyed family time together.
Over the years, these outings became more and more productive, and Michels’ customer base expanded. He founded the company in 2009 after a decade as a teacher in the Beaverton School District.
“As I was losing my hearing as a teacher, it was becoming more difficult to teach,” he said. “Business was growing, so I went all in. The name Cascade Organic really came more from the way we grew our business, which was completely organic. This started in my garage and picking mushrooms on the weekend to, here we are now with a warehouse and a fleet of trucks.”
Expanding to retail sales was something he had wanted to do before the pandemic forced his hand. In addition to staying in business, however, the change also allows Michels to continue educating the public on the benefits of locally sourced food.
“Our model isn’t like a retail store, it’s more of being able to order online and have us deliver or schedule a pickup,” he said. “We’re in a warehouse, so it’s not conducive to that. I’d love to have a real retail space, and we’ll do that eventually.”
To learn more and see what Cascade Organic has in stock, visit: CascadeOrganic.com.