Heating Up Winter Mushroom Merchandising

Mycopia Row of BottlesPhoto Courtesy of Gourmet Mushrooms

Variety and versatility are driving fresh category growth.

Dole Oakshire Display

Photo Courtesy of Oakshire

Soups, stews and casseroles are staple dishes during the cold months of the year. What each of these, and other wintertime recipes, have in common is serving as a perfect vehicle for savory ingredients like mushrooms. “Mushrooms are much more popular in winter, mostly due to people changing their cooking habits and transitioning to winter recipes,” says John Savidan, produce director for Bristol Farms and Lazy Acres, a 15-store chain headquartered in Carson, CA. “Lots of today’s winter recipes center around comfort foods, which really lends to the tendencies to incorporate mushrooms.”

The numbers support this observation. According to IRI data provided by the Mushroom Council, headquartered in Redwood Shores, CA, the category’s contribution to total produce dollar sales rose to 2.1 percent during the 13 weeks ending March 20, 2016, or in the winter, while dropping to 1.6 percent for the 13 weeks concluding on Sept. 4, 2016, or summer.

Here are some ideas to boost mushroom sales this winter.

The Perfect Ingredient

To maximize sales, especially in the winter, “it’s important to market and merchandise mushrooms as an ingredient rather than simply a piece of produce,” says Brian Kiniry, president and chief operating officer for Oakshire Mushroom Farm Inc., in Kennett Square, PA, which ships much of its product under the Dole label.

Mushrooms are a perfect ingredient because they are delicious and nutritious. “There are four primary tastes: salty, sweet, bitter and sour,” says Mike O’Brien, vice president of sales and marketing for Watsonville, CA-based Monterey Mushrooms. “Umami, found in mushrooms, is actually the fifth basic taste. Because umami flavor is so robust, with a broth-like or meaty flavor, it allows you to use less salt when cooking. In addition, because mushrooms are low in sodium, you can add them to enhance the flavor of just about any dish from meatloaf to pasta.”

In addition, says O’Brien, “One of the larger marketing initiatives for us has been promoting the health benefits within the category, highlighting one in particular — vitamin D. Mushrooms are the only produce item with natural vitamin D — important not only for bones, but essential for a healthy immune system.”

Offer Variety‬

Each type of mushroom comes with its own culinary attributes. For this reason, many retailers carry many varieties. “We have a strong representation of conventional, organic and dried mushrooms. This includes White Button, Cremini, Portobello, Shitake, Oyster, Chanterelle’s, Morels and Porcini when available. Some of the exotics we offer are Blue and Black Trumpet, Pigs Ear, Cloud Ear, King Oyster, Pioppini and Enoki,” says Bristol Farms and Lazy Acres’ Savidan.

In Northern California, there’s something for shoppers of every budget at North State Grocers, a Cottonwood, CA-headquartered chain that operates 12 Holiday Markets and seven SAVMOR Foods. “The Holiday stores are more upscale, so we’ll offer loose and packaged varieties like White, Cremini and Shitake in conventional and organic, as well as stuffed mushrooms,” says Rick Rutte, produce and floral director. “A couple of stores carry maitake’s, due to customer request. The value-oriented SAVMOR stores typically carry four SKUs of white and brown mushrooms.”

The white mushroom remains king of the category, representing 63 precent of dollar sales, according to IRI data provided by the Mushroom Council for the 52 weeks ending Oct. 2, 2016

On the East Coast, white button, portobello, cremini, shiitake and oyster in conventional and organic are the best-sellers at Redner’s Markets Inc., a Reading, PA-based chain with 44 warehouse markets and 20 quick shoppes in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware, according to Richard Stiles, director of produce and floral.

The white mushroom remains king of the category, representing 63 percent of dollar sales, according to IRI data provided by The Mushroom Council for the 52 weeks ending Oct. 2, 2016. “White mushrooms are still the most popular mushrooms sold at retail, but the mushroom consumer is becoming more sophisticated and is moving from the traditional white mushrooms to brown mushrooms and exotics, such as oyster and shitake,” says Monterey’s O’Brien.

Brown mushrooms represented 31.4 percent of category dollar sales in the past year, ending Oct. 2, 2016. Of this, three-fourths of dollars are from cremini and one-fourth from portobello. “Consumer’s conversion from white button to brown mushrooms continues, with total mushroom category dollar sales growth now driven by browns. Cremini mushrooms, which are young Portabello mushrooms and often referred to as ‘Baby Bellas,’ look much like White Button mushrooms. However, they’re darker in color, have a stronger flavor and taste good raw or sautéed. They have become very popular,” says Monterey’s O’Brien.

Mushroom Council Retail

Photo Courtesy of Mushroom Council

Aside from White and Brown mushrooms, specialty mushrooms, like Shiitake’s, represented 4 percent of category dollars during the 52-weeks ending Oct. 2, 2016. “There’s increased demand for mushrooms with more flavor, such as Shiitake, King Oyster and Royal Trumpet,” says Kevin Donovan, national sales manager for Phillips Mushroom Farms, Kennett Square, PA.

Customers are getting a taste of these specialty ‘shrooms while dining out. For example, Seasons 52, a 43-unit chain and brand of Orlando, FL-headquartered Darden Restaurants Inc., makes its Trio of Roasted Mushroom Flatbread with Cremini, Oyster and Shiitake mushrooms. The Cheesecake Factory, a 185-unit chain based in Calabasas, CA, serves Shiitake mushrooms in its Hibachi Steak entrée offering.

Wild mushrooms, once scarce and expensive, are gaining in supply and sales. “We work with some of the best foragers, primarily in the northwest and Midwest, to bridge the gap in availability for chanterelles, morels, porcinis and matsutakes,” says Kevin Delaney, vice president of sales and marketing at To-Jo Mushrooms Inc., in Avondale, PA.

The new Michigan farm that Sebastopol, CA-headquartered Gourmet Mushrooms Inc., opened last year, will be where the company plans to cultivate morels, in addition to other varieties, and offer to retailers by fall 2017, according to Justin Reyes, sales and marketing manager.

Organic mushrooms reached 9.7 percent of category dollar sales during the 52-weeks ending Oct. 2, 2016, up 36.7 percent from 2015. “Organic products are trending across the fresh food industry, so it is not surprising that the trend has spread to mushrooms as well,” says Bill Litvin, senior vice president of sales and national account manager for Giorgio Fresh in Temple, PA.

Whole and sliced white mushrooms are popular organic offerings at Redner’s.“Organic mushrooms are so competitive at retail now that they fit into more people’s budgets and are gaining in sales,” says Stiles. Fresh-cut mushrooms are trending now as people look for convenient recipe ready options. Sliced mushrooms represented 27.3 percent of category dollars, while value-added products like stuffed mushrooms were 1.5 percent of dollars during the last year ending Oct. 2, 2016. “Sliced mushrooms are a big part of our business,” says Holiday Markets and SAVMOR’s Rutte. “Our stuffed mushrooms line, which features a variety of flavors, could make for a unique appetizer or main course that helps eliminate prep time for those particularly tight on time,” says Litvin.

Another value-added mushroom product gaining favor with shoppers is blends or medley’s featuring more than one type per pack. “Our Mushrooms Medleys were created with busy on-the-go consumers in mind and our line-up of mixed mushrooms takes the guesswork out of meal prep,” says Jane Rhyno, director of sales and marketing for Highline Mushrooms in Leamington, Ontario, Canada. “They are available in three delicious blends — Steakhouse Style, Pasta Perfect & Sizzling Stir Fry — and complement a variety of meal occasions.

Educate Shoppers

Shoppers may know some of the ways that mushrooms can be used, but few know the full extent of the versatility they offer. Ways to acquaint them are by providing usage suggestions and recipes in a variety of creative ways. “Customer education goes a long way with getting folks to try mushrooms. Encouraging customers to try them in a recipe is half the battle; and when you can offer health benefits and other recipes, it’s all a plus,” says Bristol Farms and Lazy Acres Savidan.   Rutte and his team at Holiday Markets offer shoppers one-stop side and meal ideas by cross-merchandising mushrooms with packaged salads, fresh-cut cooking vegetables and egg roll wrappers. “Demos are a great way for customers to learn about the various tastes and textures of each mushroom variety,” says Katie Preis, the Mushroom Council’s marketing manager. “This is also a good time to expand customer’s horizons, suggesting, for example, they try adding a handful of sliced Shiitakes in simple recipes like omelettes or pastas.”

Hand out recipe cards during in-store demos, suggests Phillips’ Donovan. “We put recipes in our ads with a starburst that calls attention to featured ingredients like mushrooms. These are the ads we place in the newspaper and on Facebook. We’ve found this is a great way to promote different mushroom varieties year-round,” says Redner’s Stiles. In-store, and beyond customary point-of-sale materials, Oakshire’s Kiniry says some retailers are moving to LED video screens in departments like produce and meat. “These can move recipe preparation ideas from a being a chore to an experience, and mushrooms from a commodity to a sought-after ingredient,” he says.

An out-of-the-box idea is to tap into the meal kit craze. Meal kits, or fresh food subscription services that deliver fresh, pre-measured ingredients to consumer’s doorsteps, topped $1 billion globally in 2015, according to the Understanding Fresh Food Subscription Study released by Technomic in January 2016. This same study forecasts that the U.S. market growth alone for meal kits is projected to increase by a factor of 10 times in the next five years. Now retailers, such as Giant Food Stores, a nearly 200-store chain headquartered in Carlisle, PA, are offering meal kit programs in select stores. Peapod customers in some of the chain’s market areas can order the kits for delivery. Mushrooms fit right in. In fact, one of Giant’s selections is a pan seared chicken breast with creamy mushroom sauce, garlic roasted green beans and seasoned wild rice priced at $14.99 per kit — enough to feed two people.

Spread the Wealth

Cross-displaying mushrooms in other supermarket departments such as meat is a way to increase the ring of not only mushrooms, but partner products like beef. “In December 2016, we set up a two-week promotion in our Holiday Markets where we put mushrooms in the meat department. Signage let customers know that if they purchased $5 worth of our Sterling Silver Premium beef, they could get $1 off sliced mushrooms. A QR code on the signage took customers to the Mushroom Council site’s recipes. We also let customers know about this promotion on our website and social media. Next, we plan to expand the promotion to chicken,” explains Rutte.

The Mushroom Council’s “Blendability” initiative is keeping mushrooms top of mind. This effort communicates to consumers how blending fresh mushrooms with ground meat (beef, pork or poultry) can substantially enhance flavour and reduce fat, sodium and calories.  “With the Blend, retailers can offer value-added product offerings across the meat and deli departments. Plus, the blend can be easily prepared because all ingredients needed are readily available in the store. It also offers potential cost savings by replacing a portion of proteins and reducing shrink in the produce department,” says Highline’s Rhyno.

Last year, the Mushroom Council conducted a pilot program of the Blend concept with a Midwestern regional grocery chain with just under 20 stores. “Results showed there was a 60 percent increase in fresh mushroom sales in the produce department, a 12 percent increase of hamburger patty sales in meat and a 10 percent lift in meatloaf lunch and dinner sales in the deli after the post-Blend switch,” says Preis.

Handle With Care

Mushrooms are one of the most perishable categories in the produce department. One way to keep them at their best is proper temperature control. “We display mushrooms in refrigerated cases with glass doors that maintain a constant temperature and product quality,” says Rick Rutte, produce and floral director at North State Grocers, a Cottonwood, CA-headquartered chain that operates 12 Holiday Markets and seven SAVMOR stores.

In addition, to minimize shrink and maximize sales, “it’s important to know your consumer and offer the variety that matches the store demographics,” says Mike O’Brien, vice president of sales and marketing for Watsonville, CA-based Monterey Mushrooms. “Once that is determined, it’s blocking and tackling. That is, proper ordering to turn product; use your history and current trends. Stay in stock. Out of stocks lead to loss sales, disappointed customers, and really plays havoc with your scan data.”

To help educate retail staff, Sebastopol, CA-headquartered Gourmet Mushrooms has produced a new retail handling guide. This is available through distributors or from the supplier. Information inside includes flavor profiles of each variety, usage suggestions and handling tips.