four middle aged men sit on an outdoor couch holding mugs
(From left) Mad Dandy partners Marty Friedman, Eric Toizer, Seth Steinberg and Josh Denberg toast mugs of their mushroom-based coffee alternative in Kentfield on June 7, 2024. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

Mushroom-dandelion ‘un-coffee’ alternative grows fans in Marin

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An offhand question inspired Marty Friedman to start a beverage company with an unusual product and a whimsical name. The question came from a random article he read while doomscrolling early in the Covid-19 pandemic: “Are you drinking too much coffee?”

Friedman knew the answer.

“I’ve been drinking coffee since I was 14,” he said. “When Yom Kippur came around, I had to wean myself off of it for a two-week window before. It was never the hunger or thirst that bothered me. It was always the headache.”

He started off by experimenting with a drink just for himself. But along the way, he realized he had a creamy, nutty coffee alternative in his mug and convinced three of his friends to partner with him to bring it to market.

The result is a mushroom-dandelion powder with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory ingredients and a small amount of Turkish coffee, which cuts the caffeine by 75 percent. The company is called Mad Dandy — more on that below.

All four partners know one another through the Jewish community in Marin County, where Friedman lived until he and his wife became empty-nesters and moved to San Francisco. Among the four partners, they have previously or are currently serving on the boards of the Osher Marin JCC, Brandeis Marin day school and Hebrew Free Loan.

The origin story of “mushroom coffee” apparently goes back to World War II amid coffee bean shortages. But it has re-emerged in recent years as a health-conscious alternative to regular coffee. Reviews of the product category in general are mixed — many use the word “earthy” to describe the taste. Yet there are numerous brands already on the U.S. market, and mushroom coffee has topped $2 billion in annual global sales, according to market research.

“It’s a new and growing category, and we think we have the best-tasting product out there,” said partner Eric Toizer, who has an investment banking and finance background and serves as Mad Dandy’s acting CEO.

Friedman, who works in real estate, began his quest by first reading up on coffee substitutes and experimenting with “biohacking” ingredients like dandelion root and various types of mushrooms. 

“Dandelion root looks and smells and resembles instant coffee,” Friedman said. But he found the taste of it to be “bitter, tart and gross.” Nevertheless, dandelion root has fans who drink it because they tout its benefits to the liver. So he created a combination of dandelion root, chicory root, barley and rye — all roasted.

Meanwhile, some varieties of mushrooms are believed to wake up the mind in a similar way to caffeine, so he turned to chaga, reishi and lion’s mane mushrooms and cordyceps fungi as an alternative boost for energy, Friedman said.

I’ve been drinking coffee since I was 14. When Yom Kippur came around, I had to wean myself off of it for a two-week window before.

Marty Friedman

Inspired by a chai latte, Friedman also began adding chai ingredients like ginger, cinnamon and black pepper.

Other ingredients include defatted peanut powder, turmeric for its anti-inflammatory properties and beef collagen for skin, hair and joint health. Mad Dandy is experimenting with a product without the beef collagen to create a vegetarian (and possibly kosher) option. And a decaf version is already available.

Even when Friedman finally had a blend that he loved, it took a while before he felt ready to share it with his friends. 

Partner Josh Denberg tried it and was the first to say: “We should be selling this.”

They boast that Mad Dandy is the only mushroom coffee that doesn’t require milk and honey or other sweeteners to mask a horrible taste, though it does contain sucralose.

I was a skeptic before I tasted it, but I enjoyed it and could especially pick up on notes of vanilla, which is toward the end of the ingredient list.

Friedman originally dubbed his creation “Marty’s amazing drink.” Denberg, who is chief marketing officer, came up with “Mad Dandy” instead. “Mad” stands in for “mushrooms and dandelion.” The “Dandy” is short for dandelion.

Toizer came aboard later, as did Seth Steinberg, who is serving as legal counsel. 

They began selling it at Marin farmers markets last year and then turned to online sales and now regularly ship to 37 states. They are also selling at Mollie Stone’s in Sausalito and Greenbrae and at Driver’s Market & Deli in Sausalito. A bag with seven servings of the blend costs $12, and one with 30 servings costs $40.

Various combinations of the four partners produce it in the kitchen at the Osher Marin JCC in San Rafael, but they’re working on finding the right company to produce and package it.

“We had to prove that there’s something really here before we dump a lot of money into it,” Toizer said. “But we’re seeing that it’s making sense for us to put in the time and effort.”

Shortly after the Oct. 7 Hamas massacre and the start of the war, the company announced that it would donate half of its earnings to two relief nonprofits, one Israeli and one Palestinian. Friedman said the money was raised from sales of a limited-edition bag of the mix.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."