Mushrooms are one of the most popular produce items for the foodservice industry.

Half of all mushrooms grown in the U.S. could be destined for restaurants or other places where they’re eaten outside the home.

The San Jose, Calif.-based Mushroom Council has made a big push into the foodservice market, said president Bart Minor.

“Promoting to the foodservice sector is vital because retail sales result when people try a dish made with mushrooms at restaurants and want to duplicate it at home,” he said.

“The increase in mushroom usage for breakfast and lunch could be a derivative from the foodservice industry.”

Foodservice business was hit hard by the recession, said Joe Caldwell, vice president of Monterey Mushrooms Inc., Watsonville, Calif. But over the past year, it has begun to return to previous levels in many areas.

Bill Litvin, vice president of sales and national account manager for Giorgio Foods Inc., Temple, Pa., said foodservice customers who buy from Giorgio are almost all showing good sales growth.

“Obviously, some parts of the country were harder hit by the recession, and continue to struggle,” he said.

Gourmet Mushrooms Inc., Sebastopol, Calif., tries to develop a connection with chefs, restaurants and fine food, said Bob Engel, chef liaison.

“Chefs love new ingredients,” said Engel, who has 25 years experience as a chef.

When chefs use ingredients that diners enjoy but haven’t tasted before, like the company’s Velvet Pioppini mushrooms with dark chocolate-colored caps and cream-colored stems, “it makes (the chefs) look good,” Engel said.

Up to 75% of the company’s mushrooms go to foodservice accounts, either through wholesale distributors or directly to chefs.

Monterey Mushrooms sells about 35% of its volume to the foodservice sector, Caldwell said.

The most popular varieties continue to be the white button, portabella, and baby bella varieties, he said. But growth continues for specialty mushrooms, specifically, oysters and shiitakes.

“Many restaurants, specifically pizza houses, prefer to buy their mushrooms pre-sliced to save on labor,” he said.

“Many other restaurants prefer whole mushrooms, as they give them better shelf life and maximum versatility.”

Giorgio Foods ships about 25% of its volume to foodservice accounts, Litvin said.

“Restaurants seem to prefer the sliced mushrooms for the labor savings as well as the size and thickness consistency we can provide,” Litvin said.

Mushrooms can play a significant role in the federal school lunch program as new U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines take effect requiring half the plate to consist of fruits and vegetables, said Fred Recchiuti, general manager of Basciani Mushroom Farms, Avondale, Pa.

When it was discovered that kids don’t always eat all their fruits and vegetables, a “stealth mix” turned out to be one solution.

That’s where mushrooms are substituted for 20% or more of the ground beef in items like tacos, meatballs or sloppy joes.

“It doesn’t change the taste of it,” Recchiuti said, but it gives kids the advantage of getting an extra helping of vegetables while reducing the fat content of the meat.

To-Jo Mushrooms, Avondale, Pa., showed off some of its prepared products at the National Restaurant Association show in Chicago in May, said Paul Frederic, senior vice president of sales and marketing.

He singled out the firm’s Simply Saute Prepared Mushrooms, which the company touts as a “perfect stand-alone side dish or ingredient to create and enhance a wide range of customer favorites.”

Prepared products virtually eliminate in-use cooking shrink at store level and offer extended shelf life, reduced labor, improved consistency and superior quality, Frederic said.

An exciting fact about mushrooms and foodservice, Engel said, is that, unlike most vegetables that are familiar to most people, new mushroom varieties still are being discovered.