While foodservice business lagged during the economic downturn, mushroom grower-shippers say retail sales enjoyed an uptick.

“Retail business was up quite a bit last year,” said Kevin Donovan, sales manager for Phillips Mushroom Farms, Kennett Square, Pa. “Demand for mushrooms is increasing.”

Cold weather last winter kept a lid on volume of some other crops, and that may have helped boost mushroom sales, he said.

Thirty years ago, mushrooms didn’t even rate their own section in the produce department, said Gary Schroeder, director of Dole Mushrooms and president of Oakshire Mushroom Farm Inc., Kennett Square, Pa., which markets the Dole product.

Most stores just had a row of white mushrooms that they sold in one size container. Now supermarkets stock several varieties of whole and sliced mushrooms in a variety of pack sizes.

The company’s sales were higher over the past year than they were the previous year, he said.

“We’ve seen growth all the way through the year,” Schroeder said.

Basciani Mushroom Farms, Avondale, Pa., doesn’t do a lot of retail business, but general manager Fred Recchiuti said sales were strong during the pink till promotion in the fall that supported breast cancer research.

In mid-December, he said Thanksgiving sales also were strong, and he expected upward movement to continue through the holidays as companies once again hosted yuletide parties.

“Every one of those Christmas parties will have stuffed mushroom appetizers,” he said.

The San Jose, Calif.-based Mushroom Council said produce managers should keep consumers abreast of ways to use mushrooms and incorporate them into their meals in order to help increase their department’s sales into the new year.

But president Bart Minor said checks of some stores have revealed holes on the shelves where some of the top-selling stock-keeping units should be.

“Variety is important, and quality of the display is important, but it is important to never be out of stock on your top three or four (stock-keeping units),” he said. “Based on research we’ve done, we find that is not uncommon.”

The industry needs to conduct at least the same number of promotions throughout the coming year as it did last year in order to maintain the strong sales numbers, Donovan said.

“You can’t operate efficiently having less demand for two to three weeks at a time,” he said. “We’ve still got to produce the same amount of mushrooms every week.”

Dole started seeing real traction with its vitamin D-enriched portabella products in 2010, and Schroeder is hopeful that will continue this year as a result of a recommendation from the Institute of Medicine that consumers set their daily intake of vitamin at 600 International Units — triple the amount recommended in 1997.

“People are starting to understand what is going on, why it matters,” Schroeder said.

Vitamin D is not artificially added to Dole’s mushrooms, he said, “It’s the real deal.”

Mushrooms might help retailers sell other parts of the store besides produce, Minor said.

“The opportunity right now is tremendous to utilize the power of produce and the health halo of produce to sell other items in the store that people might not otherwise think of as healthy,” he said.

For example, he said retailers can cross-merchandise mushrooms to help sell steak seasonings or soy sauce.