(Feb. 5) The growth of mushrooms in restaurants — in side dishes and as entrees — is noteworthy, says Bart Minor, the Mushroom Council’s president.

“It’s certainly one thing we’ve seen,” he said. “Our latest chain account menu survey that came out earlier this year shows that mushrooms on menus of the top chains had risen once again. Last year, it was up 2.5%, and this year, it was up about 6%.”

Eateries find a wide range of mushrooms as exotic varieties are becoming more prevalent.

“We’re looking more and more at chain restaurants,” said Craig Anderson, president of San Diego-based Golden Gourmet Mushrooms, a specialty grower-shipper. “Restaurateurs see a ‘exotic mushroom’ that we can ship 24-7. So we’re trying to grow that factor.”

Harry Enns, chief operating officer with Leamington, Ontario-based grower-shipper Highline Mushrooms, agreed that restaurants were asking for more specialty varieties.

“I don’t see that much being done with the basic white mushroom,” he said. “I see more being done with the exotics. When I see new recipes, for the most part, they’re portabellas and shiitakes and other exotics. I think the romance is in the exotics. However, I don’t see any (increase) in the sale of exotics.”

The potential profits in the foodservice sector appear to be compelling enough for some companies to devote most of their energies in that category.

Avondale, Pa.-based Basciani Mushroom Farms is one of them.

“Eighty-five percent of our business is probably foodservice,” said Fred Recchiuti, Basciani’s marketing director.

The reason is simple, he said.

“You look at the mushroom market the last 20 years — retail sales have been flat,” he said “Foodservice sales have been growing at a faster pace.”

With such a focus on the foodservice sector, considerable effort goes into promoting new mushroom uses on menus, Recchiuti said.

“One thing I do is go around and give a PowerPoint presentation to their customers that sell to restaurants, to chains like Darden and Applebee’s and Outback,” he said. “We talk about up-selling sautéed mushrooms.”

The fast-food sector also presents multiple opportunities, Recchiuti said.

“Mushrooms are not just for steaks anymore,” he said. “Quizno’s is now using them on their chicken sandwich. They go with everything. Somewhere between 20% and 28% of college students are vegetarians. It’s also a very good meat substitute, because mushrooms have nutrients that aren’t usually associated with produce.”

Restaurants know they can rely on the quality of the product, as well, said Kevin Donovan, sales manager for Phillips Mushroom Inc., Avondale, Pa.

“More and more, because it’s something they know they can get and it’s a consistent product,” he said. “It’s also something they know they can use to differentiate themselves from other restaurants.”

Portabellas, of course, have been a major driver of mushrooms’ foodservice sales, said Paul Frederic, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Avondale, Pa.-based To-Jo Fresh Mushrooms Inc.

“Foodservice is certainly a strong segment,” he said. “There’s continued growth of portabella mushrooms there and, in fact, menuing of portabellas is up something like 19% this year and mushrooms in general are up 29%.”

The product’s versatility assures its future growth, Frederic added.

“It can be a lot of different things,” he said. “It can be an entrée, a side dish, an appetizer. There are just a lot of different applications. We’re seeing a lot of chains take a lot of interest and are pushing the breakfast now. Mushrooms are in omelet and things of that nature.”

But the business these days has transcended portabella sales, said Joe Caldwell, vice president of Monterey Mushrooms Inc., Watsonville, Calif.

“The big thing for the foodservice is operators are really seeing more and more ways of preparing mushrooms,” he said. “They use them in so many more dishes than they had before. There are portabella pizzas, portabella sandwiches, chicken recipes, side dishes.”