Foodservice business continues to account for a large portion of sales for most major mushroom grower-shippers.

At Sebastopol, Calif.-based Gourmet Mushrooms Inc., for example, 70% of sales are to foodservice operators, usually through high-end produce distributors, said Bob Engel, chef liaison.

Most of the company’s specialty mushrooms go to upscale restaurants. They’re rarely served in chain restaurants, he said.

Gourmet Mushrooms doesn’t have the volume necessary to service mainstream chains, even if the chains were willing to pay for specialty mushrooms, he said.

An exception is Il Fornaio Italian restaurants and bakeries, a group of 21 restaurants based in Corte Madera, Calif., with whom the company has participated in regional festival-type promotions, Engel said.

For the most part, Gourmet Mushrooms seeks out distributors, whether broadliners or produce specialists, who deal in premium-quality products.

“We need distributors willing to take the time to learn our product and whose customers are already into specialty items,” Engel said.

Some restaurants want to create a stellar reputation for themselves by providing great food, Engel said.

Foodservice also makes up a large part of the business for Ponderosa Mushrooms & Specialty Foods, Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, said president Joe Salvo.

Business is increasing with the mostly high-end eateries that the company deals with, he said.

“Chefs are looking for variety, quality and something different to put on their menus,” Salvo said.

They seek out the different textures and flavors that they can get from specialty mushrooms.

The firm’s Chef’s Mix, a mixture of six kinds of pre-cleaned, chopped and ready-to-go mushrooms, is especially popular as a side dish or appetizer, or it can be used in risotto or sauces, he said.

Even some chain and institutional accounts that are on tight budgets use Chef’s Mix or variations of it because they want to offer something other than a sliced white mushroom, Salvo said.

“That’s where a lot of our huge growth is going to be,” he said.

A Seattle pizza chain conducted a monthlong promotion that featured chanterelle and shiitake mushrooms on pizzas.

“The volume was phenomenal,” Salvo said. “The people are willing to pay the extra money for specialty mushrooms on their pizza.”

The majority of foodservice sales to customers of Phillips Mushroom Farms, Kennett Square, Pa., continue to be white mushrooms, but more restaurants are buying varieties like portabellas, criminis and shiitakes, said Kevin Donovan, national sales manager.

And they’re not limited to upscale restaurants.

“You’re seeing portabellas on Wendy’s hamburgers,” he said, noting that he also has seen them advertised at Applebee’s restaurants.

“It’s filtered down from fine dining to casual and even to the fast food industry,” Donovan said.

Dole Mushrooms, Kennett Square, does some foodservice business under the Oakshire brand, said Gary Schroeder, director.

The company has worked with some chains on various portabella programs that have been very successful, he said.

“Their growth has been wonderful.”

The program has allowed the restaurants to improve sales on some meals that have not previously been strong movers, he said.

“Portabella has been a wonderful addition to some of these restaurants,” Schroeder said.

Mushrooms grower-shippers say the recession has been felt to varying degrees in the foodservice category.

Foodservice operators are seeking out value-added items to save labor in the kitchen, said Paul Frederic, senior vice president of sales and marketing for To-Jo Mushrooms, Avondale, Pa.

The company offers a number of foodservice items, including sauteed, flavored and sliced portabella mushrooms that are fully prepared and just need to be heated up, he said.

To-Jo also offers customized flavors and blends for foodservice.

At Gourmet Mushrooms, Engel said the company experienced a bit of a decline at the height of the recession.

“I think that’s over,” he said.

“(Restaurants) still want good value, but they know their name is built in part by the ingredients they source,” he said.

To some extent, foodservice business has rebounded for Phillips Mushroom Farms, but not the point where Donovan is willing to declare the recession over.