Making The Most of Mushrooms’ Ubiquity In Winter Recipes

Originally printed in the January 2020 issue of Produce Business.

Retailers can increase sales through savvy merchandising, marketing and promotional techniques.

Mushrooms are the perfect winter vegetable. Earthy and full of savory flavor, they’re a favorite partner in hearty soups and stews.

Retailers can maximize mushroom sales through a combination of savvy marketing and effective promotional techniques.

Sales Trends Shift

Overall mushroom sales are strong, with tight supplies and increasing prices. According to IRI tracker data shared by the Mushroom Council, Redwood Shores, CA, purchases and sales of classic white mushrooms are down, brown (Baby Bella, Cremini) are up, and specialty varieties are particularly strong. Rising demand in the face of stable supply is pushing up prices.

“The highest percentage of retail mushroom sales continues to be whole and sliced white mushrooms, along with whole and sliced brown mushrooms, although the ratio is shifting from white to brown as the Baby Bella continues to grow and, in some areas, outsells white mushrooms,” says Mike O’Brien, vice president, sales and marketing, Monterey Mushrooms, Santa Cruz, CA. “We market white and brown mushrooms in 8-ounce, 16-ounce, and 24-ounce packages. We also sell specialty mushrooms such as oyster, Shiitake, Maitake, brown and white beech, and King Trumpet, with Shiitakes currently leading the exotic category. As more recipes and restaurant meals feature exotics such as Shiitake and Oyster mushrooms, mushroom consumers become more sophisticated and want to try them at home.”

Giorgio Fresh Co., Temple, PA, offers a variety of bulk and value-added mushrooms, ranging from 4- to 24-ounce tills. “The various options help meet the needs of consumers cooking for themselves as well as consumers cooking to entertain a large group of family and friends,” says Greg Sagan, executive vice president. “Today’s consumer is looking for convenience and value. Those cooking for a larger group may prefer to buy in bulk, while the more casual consumer might prefer a smaller, pre-packaged item. Some consumers prefer items that are wrapped to ensure that the last point of contact was at a food facility.” Sagan adds that whites and browns continue to dominate the category, but the company is seeing double digit growth in exotics and specialty mushrooms, along with strong growth in organics.

Exotics hold great potential in an industry that is “moved by white and brown mushrooms,” says Lou Caputo, sales manager, KSS Sales, Avondale, PA. “Varieties that were exotic several years ago, like Shiitake and oyster, are almost mainstream. King Oysters and King Trumpet are exotic today. Mushrooms we fooled around with 20 years ago are big now. For example, we experimented with Hen-Of-The-Woods years ago and now we sell 10,000 pounds per week.”

Retailer DeCicco & Sons, Westchester County, NY, maintains a tight display with a combination of whole and sliced packaged mushrooms and bulk conventional and specialty varieties, including Shiitake and oyster. “We often run sales on mushrooms around holidays and big events like the Super Bowl,” says Hector Montes, produce manager, Somers, NY. Montes also points out that the chain accommodates special requests for more expensive premium mushrooms, including Chanterelles and truffles, within 24 hours.

“We also are looking into a cross promotion of mushrooms with a supermarket pharmacy department and then turning that into a case study to share with retailers.”

— Heather Harter, Mushroom Council

“We’ve seen great success with sliced Shiitakes in the fall, and since it’s a cooking mushroom, we expect to see sales growth through the winter months. Consumers like the convenience factor,” says Kevin Donovan, national sales manager for Phillips Mushroom Farms, based in Kennett Square, PA. “Also we are seeing increased demand for organics, and that has continued to grow. I look forward to continuing that into the winter.

“Consumers are also interested in the exotic varieties, such as Trumpet, Maitake and Pompoms. Retailers are looking for varieties that are differenct,” notes Donovan.

Organic mushrooms have become an important part of a retail display. IRI data shared by Monterey Mushrooms lists an organic share of 11.6% of the mushroom category for the total United States. The company notes when organic mushrooms are integrated into the overall mushroom category merchandising shelf set, unit sales and profits increase. At Lucky’s Market locations, headquartered in Niwot, CO, approximately 40% of the mushroom set is organic.

Mushrooms Warm Up Winter

“This is the hot season for mushrooms,” says Caputo. “By late fall, fewer crops are in season, so mushrooms are a good substitute. Winter also is a good time for growing mushrooms because quality of our compost growing medium improves. Mushroom sales are strong in January with New Year’s resolutions to eat healthy and stay strong into February.”

Monterey’s O’Brien notes while mushrooms are available all year long because they are cultivated in indoor farms, popular preparation methods change in the winter months. “People do eat salads throughout the year, and mushrooms are great with salads, but winter cooking also includes stovetop and oven dishes such as casseroles, soups and other comfort foods. You can incorporate mushrooms into just about any dish.” O’Brien also explains that in addition to the four primary tastes — salty, sweet, bitter and sour – umami is the fifth taste, and it is described as savory.

“Mushrooms are known for their umami flavor, and it is so robust that you can use less salt when cooking.”

Messaging Around Health

“Mushrooms can sell themselves on their huge health benefits,” says Butch Dougherty, produce manager and operations director, Iovine Brothers, Reading Terminal Market, Philadelphia. “In particular, mushrooms deliver great flavor in very few calories.”

Vitamin D is a nutrient that is important for bone health by helping the body to absorb calcium. The body makes vitamin D from sunlight in the summer months, but vitamin D levels drop in the winter when sunlight is weaker and less prevalent. Mushrooms are among the few foods that naturally contain some vitamin D and can deliver higher levels after being exposed to sunlight. Monterey Mushrooms partnered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to create a program that exposes mushrooms to the type of sunlight found outside in order to boost their concentration of vitamin D to half the Daily Value per serving.

“Monterey Mushrooms’ products that are high in vitamin D are available to customers nationwide in 8-ounce and 16-ounce packages of sliced whites, sliced Baby Bellas and whole Portabella caps at the same price as our conventional packs,” says O’Brien. “These products have new enhanced labels at retail, and we also promote them to consumers via social media.” Monterey has plans to educate its customers, including produce managers, at food shows and seminars.

The Mushroom Council’s 2020 programming will support vitamin D messaging, as well as other aspects of mushroom nutrition. “We are considering adding a vitamin D starburst on the label that we as a council can promote,” notes Heather Harter, industry communications coordinator. “We also are looking into a cross promotion of mushrooms with a supermarket pharmacy department and then turning that into a case study to share with retailers.”

Mushroom Council members voted to dedicate $1.5 million to fund mushroom-related health projects in 2020: markers of health promotion of mushrooms in healthy eating patterns, health effects of substituting/adding a full serving of mushrooms to healthy eating patterns, a Healthy Kids Initiative investigating mushroom consumption and preferences among preschoolers, cognitive health in older adults, and brain health in an animal model. Harter explains the Council’s intention is to conduct research that supports greater mushroom demand by discovering nutrient and health benefits of mushrooms and publishing reports from these projects that can be used to promote mushrooms to consumers. “These retail case studies and partnerships are at our expense, to help growers and retailers call out the different attributes of mushrooms.”

Maximizing Shelf Life

“Mushrooms have to be fresh and as nice looking as possible,” says Iovine’s Dougherty. “That is why we schedule frequent pick-ups and deliveries, and we keep mushrooms in a cold and dry refrigerator case.”

Monterey Mushrooms offers guidance to retailers on mushroom handling and perishability: store at 34 to 39F in the truck and on the receiving dock to minimize the build up of condensation that speeds up the breakdown process; keep mushrooms away from produce that gives off ethylene like apples, pears and avocados; don’t place mushrooms next to onions, garlic and other aromatics because they will absorb the odors; avoid moisture from misters and other sources.

Monterey also notes that the more mushrooms in one box and the smaller the pieces or slice thickness, the more temperature sensitivity there will be, and that mushrooms with more gill are more mature (with the exception of Portabellas), with a deeper flavor but shortened shelf life. “To minimize shrink and maximize sales it’s important to know your consumer and offer the variety that matches the store demographics,” says O’Brien. “Then it’s all about blocking and tackling: maintain the cold chain from farm to retail shelf, use history and current trends to drive proper ordering, and stay in stock because out of stocks lead to lost sales and disappointed customers, and it really plays havoc with your scan data.”

Resources For Marketing

The Mushroom Council offers ongoing support to growers and retailers with sales materials, promotions and recipes. “Our new webinar series introduces sales and marketing staff to various assets on 90- and 180-day cycles,” advises Harter. “For 2020, the webinar goes through themes and promotions, including digital content, for January through June. Campaigns include healthy habits and resolutions in January, stuffed mushrooms for the Super Bowl in February, Nutrition Month in March and Earth Month in April.” The Mushroom Council tracks social media from growers and follows retailer ads to gauge their success. Future projects include recipe cards or shelf talkers to cross-promote mushrooms and meat, a Bon Appetit recipe contest in the spring, Taste America events, and tastings and samplings.

“We offer a plethora of support materials for our retail partners,” says Sagan of Giorgio Fresh. “Our website has recipes galore that are available directly to retailers for their own use on their channels. We also offer a social media kit complete with recipes and images as well as ready-to-post social media content.”

What’s New

The Blend, a foodservice-focused campaign to blend chopped mushrooms into ground meat, is so successful that Whole Foods names meat-plant blends as a top retail trend for 2020. So it’s no surprise mushroom growers are marketing chopped mushroom products to be sold in the produce department and cross-promoted with the meat department. Giorgio Fresh’s Blendabella is currently sold at retail in produce departments. Monterey sells a finely chopped product as well, recommending one facing of its three chopped mushroom SKUs swapping out exotic facings in a large display or swapping out 8-ounce sliced or whole white packages in a smaller display. The company has created video posts and image posts for social media as a way to educate consumers.

In a nod to the convenience-loving consumer, both Giorgio Fresh and Monterey have introduced new stuffed mushroom products to be sold in produce. Giorgio Fresh’s Fiesta Cheese Blend, Cheese and Imitation Bacon Bits Blend, and Artichoke, Spinach, and Cheese Blend all are offered in a convenient microwavable tray.

“We recently introduced some meal kit-style mushroom packs with three or four different mushroom varieties that work well together in a pasta or sauté kit,” says Patrick Mills, director, produce & floral, Lucky’s Market, Diwot, CO. “We’ve tried them all and stuck with a couple of them that will appeal to our customers.”

“Convenience is key because customers, especially younger ones, are looking for ingredients that are prepared for them,” says Iovine’s Dougherty. “They’re pressed for time but willing to cook if it doesn’t take too much time. Mushrooms offer so many different flavor profiles and convenience will help encourage people to try them.”