While mushroom sales in the foodservice sector took a hit from the recession, as consumers shied away from restaurants, the category has proved to be reasonably resilient, marketing agents say.

They add that sales have been ticking upward.

“Menu penetration has been up the last three years,” said Fred Recchiuti, marketing director for Avondale, Pa.-based Basciani Mushroom Farms.

“I think a lot of that is driven by the success of some of the quick-service restaurants like Hardee’s and McDonald’s,” he said. “Mushrooms have also been growing in that all restaurants and food companies are looking for ways to reduce sodium without reducing the flavor.”

Ben Park, president of Enviro Mushroom Farm Inc., Milton, Ontario, said he also had noticed a rise in sales to restaurants.

“It is increasing, especially in the fine-dining restaurants ... (which) are looking for local-grown products,” Park said.

During the roughest times, sometimes suppliers would work with restaurants to move product, said Dylan Anderson, who served as president of Oceanside, Calif.-based The Kinoko Co., a mushroom distributor that opted to close down at the end of 2010 in the face of competitors that he said undercut his sales.

“We were really going out and doing a few specials where the restaurant was offering discounts,” he said.

“We’d do things where we offered three cases and added a free case. People know what they’re looking for.”

The San Jose, Calif.-based Mushroom Council is promoting mushrooms in 2011 on a number of foodservice fronts.

The council focused on the college and university segment, directly reaching campus chefs and the students. Beginning with a yearlong advertising campaign in trade magazines, the council is highlighting mushrooms in ethnic and vegetarian dishes, which it says are gaining popularity on campus.

The council also has developed tools for industry members to use with their college/university customers and is working on an on-campus event competition among the several major conferences.

Quality and variety matter

Restaurants, of course, look for the best buys they can find, but their standards transcend price, said Fletcher Street, marketing and sales director for Olympia, Wash.-based Ostrom Mushroom Farms.

Sliced mushrooms sell well, since they save labor in restaurants — as long as they also have quality.

“Labor is one of the biggest costs for foodservice, and, of course, any time you can cut that and have some consistency, plus the slicing machine we have now, doesn’t leave you with a bunch of dust. They get a really nice box of usable product and they can hold up,” Street said.

Varieties also matter.

“Portabellas continue to be a good item in foodservice,” serving a useful purpose as a meat substitute, Street said.

“More and more restaurants realize they must have a vegetarian item on their menu, whether it’s for vegetarians or somebody who just doesn’t want to eat meat today at a particular meal,” she said.

“The portabella is a perfect answer.”

She added that shiitakes “have come on, but that’s more an upscale item.”

“Not so much crimini because I think it’s hard, once you’ve cooked the product, to justify the cost difference between the white and the brown.”

Mushroom growers and shippers are recognizing that restaurant traffic has picked up after the foodservice slump hit its deepest point in 2008-09, and they now are getting more active in mushroom promotions in the sector, said Paul Frederic, vice president of sales and marketing with Avondale, Pa.-based To-Jo Mushrooms.

“Quite honestly, I think we have gotten a little more aggressive in promotions,” he said.

“I think we’ve made a more conscious effort there. We’re trying to target more foodservice opportunities out there, trying to develop that segment. In terms of philosophy, we try to keep a balance between our foodservice and retail sales. It’s very important to have a balance.”

Mushrooms are positioned ideally for a foodservice resurgence, said Gary Schroeder, president of Kennett Square, Pa.-based Oakshire Mushroom Farm, which does business as Dole Mushrooms.

“I think if the foodservice is driven by healthy eating and need to offer the right choices, then mushrooms will be an ideal play for the dietitians that design this,” he said.

“If we have 20% or 30% doing substitutions of meat with mushrooms, just think of the impact.”

Mushroom Council partners up

The Mushroom Council worked with several restaurants to develop promotions, including limited-time-only offerings, throughout 2011.

  •  Uno, which serves as many as 350,000 diners per month, added two mushroom items to its permanent menu, including Artisan Wild Mushroom Pizza and a stuffed portabella appetizer.
  •  Johnny Rocket’s added a Route 66 Chicken Sandwich with Mushrooms for its 25th anniversary.
  •  West Coast restaurant chain Black Angus developed a Latin-themed, bar-type product, Chipotle Crispy Baby Portabella Mushrooms, which ran in late 2010 through February 2011.

The council said Black Angus increased its fresh mushroom use by 60% over the same time period a year earlier.