Getting more from spores in store
Umami taste sensation, coupled with intrinsic health attributes, helps move products and profits.
Whether it be spreading the health message or introducing consumers to new varieties and preparations, opportunities abound for retailers to put the spotlight on mushrooms, just as the versatile fungi increasingly find their way to the center of the plate.
They may be one of the more expensive and perishable items in produce departments, but with the right merchandising approach, mushrooms have enormous potential to lift sales as consumers get hooked on their diverse umami flavors and flexible range of uses.
Most vegetables will have some healthy traits, but mushrooms have the advantage of providing some key nutrients consumers will lose if they give up meat.
The broad shift toward vegan, vegetarian and flexitarian diets is hard to ignore, putting mushroom growers in an enviable position compared to many of their peers in fresh produce. And that’s not even considering their richness of flavor and texture pushing all the right buttons for demand.
“There are a lot of good trends that are affecting mushrooms right now,” says Kevin Delaney, vice president of sales and marketing at To-Jo Mushrooms in Avondale, PA. “There’s an increasing amount of consumers who are looking for plant-based diets; mushrooms are a very good option for them because of how much flavor and versatility they can provide, as well as the health aspect, of course.”
Mike O’Brien, vice president of sales and marketing at Monterey Mushrooms in Watsonville, CA, says nutrition education is a great opportunity for both retailers and suppliers.
“They can grow sales by educating their valuable customers,” he says. “In retail, one of the larger marketing initiatives for Monterey Mushrooms has been promoting the health benefits within the category.”
O’Brien notes mushrooms are the only non-animal food source of vitamin D (which also comes from sunlight) for people who exclude meat from their diets, while they are also fat-free, cholesterol-free, gluten-free, very low in sodium and provide important nutrients such as selenium, potassium, riboflavin, niacin and dietary fiber.
“Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium, making it an essential nutrient for bone health, both for growth and maintenance,” he says. “Insufficient levels can lead to rickets in children and osteoporosis in adults.”
He explains the company exposes its crop to UV-B light for a very short period to assist the mushrooms into producing very precise levels of vitamin D in a completely natural way.
“While many retailers are already promoting the health attributes of fresh mushrooms, there is plenty of room to reinforce that message,” adds Bill Litvin, vice president of sales at Giorgio Fresh Co. in Temple, PA. “Promoting the health and convenience messaging through POS [point of sale] and promotions will encourage shoppers to buy more mushrooms.”
Joe Salvo, president of Ponderosa Mushrooms and Specialty Foods in Maple Ridge, BC, Canada, notes mushrooms have high levels of protein, trace minerals and amino acids.
“It’s not usually spoken about very much, although it’s becoming more and more mainstream,” says Salvo. “In the European Union, mushrooms have been [classified] as a superfood, and it takes a while.”
Focus on Flavor
But just as sales of certain fruits cannot grow solely based on their ‘health halo,’ mushrooms need more than just a ‘vegetarian-friendly’ approach to fulfill their potential.
Thankfully, flavor is on their side with what the Japanese call “umami,’ a fifth taste category that accompanies the four more commonly known primary tastes: salty, sweet, bitter and sour.
“Mushrooms happen to be one of those lucky foods that take on a broth-like or meaty flavor,” says O’Brien. “The taste also comes in handy for preparing healthy dishes. If you’re looking to keep off the pounds, adding mushrooms to your diet could help.”
Mushroom burgers, soups, stir-fry dishes, pastas and kebabs are common meals for fungi fans, but the possibilities go much further. Taking a leaf out of the jackfruit-based, meat-imitation phenomenon, To-Jo mushrooms launched its ‘Pulled Port’ product in foodservice in October and is busy introducing it at retail.
“We created a product called Pulled Port, which is Portabellas that have been pulled apart and has a very similar look and texture to pulled pork,” says Delaney. “I think there’s an opportunity for us to introduce new value-added creative items in mushrooms.”
“We’ve also seen mushroom bacon and mushroom jerky come out recently,” he adds.
Delaney points to good feedback from To-Jo’s Kitchen Live series on social media showing the public how to prepare mushrooms in interesting ways.
“For example, you can slice a King Oyster mushroom, sauté it, and it almost comes out like a scallop,” he says. “If we can introduce that concept to people, we could create more lift on a specialty item like that.”
Kevin Donovan, national sales manager at Phillips Mushroom Farms in Kennett Square, PA, says the most innovative retailers are those who cultivate customers to use mushrooms in recipes they create, leading to increased sales.
Turn! Turn! Turn!
Suppliers’ views on missed merchandising opportunities vary, whether it be upsizing, greater variety, cross-merchandising or capitalizing on the “trend to blend” with meat.
One common thread, however, is that managing shrink is one of the most vital aspects of selling mushrooms well, with most suggesting a ‘horses for courses’ approach.
“It’s a balance I think between enough variety and creating too much shrink, so you have to know your customer base for that store,” says Donovan. “Is it more likely to look for a more exotic type mushroom, or is it more the bare bones with white and brown mushrooms?”
“A closer eye on inventory helps, and keeping fresher mushrooms on the shelves leads to more impulse purchases, which reduces your shrink,” he says. “You don’t want a mushroom on the shelf that is there for six or seven days.”
His views are echoed by O’Brien of Monterey Mushrooms, who emphasizes that as one of the most perishable categories in produce, mushrooms should be merchandised in the “very best refrigerated case,” next to bagged salads.
“To minimize shrink and maximize sales it is important to know your consumer and offer the variety that matches the store demographics,” says O’Brien. “Sophisticated category management is how retailers optimize their shelf space to maximize their sales and profits in the mushroom category.”
“Mushroom shrink will run as high as 10 percent or more for the cost of shrink to sales due to the perishability of the category,” he says. “It’s like The Byrds’ song in the 60s – Turn! Turn! Turn!”
“Also your first loss is your best loss. Cull and pitch those mushrooms that have seen better days, and stock those fresh mushrooms from the cooler.”
But where can the line be drawn for mushroom freshness?
“There is a misperception that because mushrooms bruise easily and may have some blemishes, that means the mushrooms are bad or should be thrown out,” says Litvin. “Mushrooms do not have a protective layer like an apple or an orange. Blemishes are just a natural characteristic of mushrooms, and flavor is not affected.”
For Litvin, effective shrink management starts with efficient inventory management in the distribution centers.
“One option for retailers is to consider pack size on slower-selling items to help control shrink,” he says, adding space allocation is also “extremely important.”
Go Big, Use Everything
Salvo of Ponderosa Mushrooms cautions retailers to avoid “killing the sale” by marking up prices to compensate for product they might expect to lose. Instead, he suggests adjusting orders regularly by variety in line with sales indicators.
“It’s less about demographics and more about the produce managers and their approach – the pricing, the display, turning product, making sure it’s always vibrant, fresh and attractive,” he says. “In my biased opinion, the bigger the better – big displays sell.”
“From a merchandising standpoint, the best way to get a lift in mushrooms is with secondary displays, moving mushrooms to the front of the store right when you walk in to grab that attention,” says Delaney of To-Jo. “That, we’ve found, is by far the best method.”
And it’s not just displays that are getting larger, but mushroom packs themselves.
“I think you’d be able to add more value-added products, more sliced products and also larger pack sizes,” says Donovan of Phillips Mushrooms. “The staple has been 8-ounce mushrooms, and I seem to be seeing more gravitation to 16-ounce and 24-ounce packages, both whole and sliced — especially sliced.”
He says this change is occurring because consumers increasingly want mushrooms to make up “more of the meal.”
“The brown mushroom category in retail is the one that keeps climbing,” says Donovan. “The white mushroom, of course, is the dominant player, and we’re seeing a really consistent growth of the Shiitake mushrooms in retail.”
In Salvo’s opinion, Shiitakes are still one of the most unappreciated mushrooms at retail and have the most potential for growth.
“They’re definitely more and more mainstream, and we see that in our distribution to our foodservice client,” he says of Shiitakes as well as others such as the “fabulous and durable” king oyster.
Also on the topic of reducing shrink, Salvo says a missed opportunity for many retailers is harnessing mushrooms in prepared foods.
“So many stores have in-house deli and in-house HMR [home meal replacement] cooking stations and facilities where they’re making pizzas in-house, salads, ready-cooked meals to go home with,” he says. “You don’t see many mushrooms in there, and that’s the perfect place to utilize extra mushrooms and also mushrooms that perhaps should be shrunk out of the produce section.”
“This has a double effect – the produce department can sell it to the deli side, which is showcasing mushrooms and showing people how to use them,” adds Salvo.
This is exactly the strategy taken by Stong’s Market of North Vancouver, BC, Canada, whose produce manager Paul Lancastle says “it all goes to good use.”
“We bring in what we know is going to sell. We have really good control of that because we have three orders a week,” he says. “Anything that we have extra such as white or brown mushrooms that lose some of the freshness, we give to the deli for making salads or for hot foods.”
He mentions Stong’s doesn’t do a lot of mushroom cross-merchandising, apart from placing fresh or dried product next to canned soups or the salad section.
SPECIALTY MUSHROOMS CATCHING ON
Paul Lancastle, produce manager at independent store Stong’s Market of North Vancouver, BC, Canada, says the most significant change in recent years has been people branching out into different exotic mushroom varieties.
“The biggest thing for me is the exotic varieties have changed dramatically,” he says. “It used to be your basic white and brown button mushrooms and different kinds of packaging, but now it’s gone into the sliced and all the exotics like Shiitake, the Oysters, chef’s mixes, Asian mixes and the Chanterelles.”
But has this come at the expense of more traditional mushrooms?
“It kind of bounces out, to be honest,” he replies. “The exotics are a little bit more expensive, but no matter what, people are going to buy the white and brown mushrooms regardless.”
Jason Kazmirski, produce/floral merchandiser at Tukwila, WA-based Northwest Grocers, which provides services for 106 independent stores in the Pacific Northwest, says mushrooms are a huge category for his stores with promotions year-round, along with wild Chanterelles promoted before the first freeze in the fall.
“For our stores, we get those Chanterelles in, and we can get those other varieties out there that are different, like Shiitake,” he says. “Year-round, we mainly promote the 8-ounce packages, just as a grab-and-go for our group.”
Justin Reyes, sales and marketing manager of Gourmet Mushrooms in Sebastopol, CA, clarifies his company does not grow Shiitake, but the variety acted as an entry point for specialty mushrooms in the United States and paved the way for others to find consumer appeal.
“I’d say for specialty in general, we started with a small slice of the overall mushroom pie in the United States, and we’re the fastest-growing category as far as mushrooms go,” says Reyes.
Marketing under the Mycopia brand of organic specialties, Gourmet Mushrooms provides “more unique” cultivars that retail produce clerks might not know so well.
“Maitake and some of the other ones we grow are more up-and-coming and are getting a lot of awareness, blog interest and media interest based on the health benefits,” says Reyes. “We have handling guides that talk about the different names these might be called, as well as information about shelf life and handling.”
Also known as ‘hen of the woods,’ Maitake is Reyes’ personal favorite and is seeing the fastest year-on-year sales for the group, even though it lacks the traditional look most people associate with mushrooms. It has more of a floral appearance.
“It’s packed with umami, the flavor and texture, and it’s just delicious,” he says. “Last year we launched a program that basically revolved around larger sizes, so we rolled out an 8-ounce Maitake Frondosa package, and awareness is quickly growing.”
Reyes also asserts mushrooms are an indicator of higher dollar purchases, and specialty mushrooms are even more so.
“Those shoppers purchasing mushrooms in general, and specialty mushrooms in particular, are going to have a larger basket size typically than folks without mushrooms,” he says. “It could be because of purchasing power, but also they’re focused on healthy eating.”
Like Reyes, many suppliers are noticing a steady rise in sales of organic product.
“To satisfy the demand and service for our customer, we are aggressively adjusting square footage from conventional to organic mushrooms,” says Mike O’Brien, vice president of sales and marketing at Monterey Mushrooms in Watsonville, CA.
“A lot of the organic customers seem a little more likely to experiment or are interested in flavors and different types of items than just the conventional product,” says Kevin Donovan, national sales manager at Phillips Mushroom Farms in Kennett Square, PA.
Bill Litvin, vice president of sales at Giorgio Fresh Co. in Temple, PA, says the organic category is seeing “extremely strong growth,” but Kevin Delaney, vice president of sales and marketing at To-Jo Mushrooms in Avondale, PA, says they might not be the best option for stores with limited space and SKUs [stock keeping units].
“I don’t think there’s too much of a difference between conventional and organic in the consumers’ eyes,” says Delaney. “Mushrooms in general are grown indoors, so there’s not that same mindset of maybe field crops and the value of having organic SKUs with it.”
Reyes notes demand for specialty mushrooms also has been boosted by increased interest from younger generations in wild mushroom foraging.
“If you want to go out there and forage you want to know what you’re doing, whereas with the cultivated specialty mushrooms you know what you’re going to get,” says Reyes. “You don’t have to worry about the identification risk, cleaning like you would out in the wild, and there’s year-round availability, whereas in the wild it’s very seasonal.”
Tamarack Holdings of Traverse City, MI, is one mushroom supplier that is focused on wild-foraged mushrooms, predominantly for the foodservice sector.
“The exception is we do have a small line of dried mushrooms that we sell in retail sizes. Those are marketed to grocery stores and vendors of that sort,” says David Eger, Tamarack’s product development and marketing content specialist.
For retailers looking to merchandise dried wild mushrooms, Eger recommends placing the product in a few different spots within each store.
“Placing them in the cooler section with fresh mushrooms is always a good move because people are already shopping for mushrooms,” he says. “Other good places for dried mushrooms are also the Asian aisle and the gourmet aisle; they don’t require special handling and can pretty much hang anywhere.”
But just like the fresh product, education is also key for dried wild mushrooms.
“We suggest people put it in hot water — it doesn’t need to be boiling — for 20 to 30 minutes until it’s soft and pliable. At that point it can be drained, patted dry and used,” says Eger. “At that stage we always recommend [saving] the liquid, in which the mushrooms were soaked for reconstitution to be saved and used in recipes as well.