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    Supermarket FRESH FOOD Business: Make room for mushrooms

    Once the cellar dwellars of the produce department, mushrooms are coming into their own as a stable, profitable category.

    The popularity of fresh mushrooms continues to sprout across the United States, thanks largely to their versatility and gourmet appeal, as well as to the many new varieties from which to choose, each with its own distinct flavor.

    Unlike most vegetables, mushrooms are grown from spores, not seeds. The spores that are used in today's sophisticated mushroom farms are collected in nearly sterile laboratories, then mixed with grains or seeds to form a spawn, which is the equivalent of a seed for mushroom farmers. Since mushrooms don't have chlorophyll, they must get their energy from the organic matter, or compost, in which they're grown.

    According to the USDA's Agriculture Research Service, per capita U.S. consumption increased from 3.7 pounds in 1993 to 4.2 pounds in 2000. Sales of the 2001-2002 U.S. mushroom crop totaled 851 million pounds, and consumers spent $912 million on them. Average price was $1.07 per pound, up 6 cents from 2000-2001.

    Pennsylvania accounts for 55 percent of the total volume of mushroom sales, followed by second-ranked California, which contributes an estimated 15 percent of the total mushroom crop annually. Far and away, the most popular edible fungi is the venerable Agaricus or white button mushroom, while brown Agaricus varieties, marketed as portabellas and creminis, are now available in even the most modest supermarkets.

    Other specialty mushroom varieties, such as oyster and shiitake—once used only by exclusive, big-city chefs—can also be found in many supermarket produce departments. While specialty mushrooms make up less than 10 percent of total mushroom sales, consumption of exotic mushrooms is on the rise, says Fred Caito, executive director of Caito Foods, an Indianapolis-based produce distributor.

    Going mainstream

    "It's a great category. Overall, mushrooms represent roughly 2 percent of all produce department dollar sales, give or take," says Caito, noting that the figure has "really gone up a lot in the last 10 years with the advent of portabellas, shiitakes, creminis, and other varietals that have become more mainstream." Sliced white buttons and sliced portabellas have also made a healthy dent in the retail mushroom market in recent years, he adds.

    Mushrooms have certainly come a long way, Caito affirms, recalling that when his family's business first began in 1965, the market for mushrooms was remote, to say the least. "We used to bring mushrooms in on a Greyhound bus from Pennsylvania, but by the end of the '60s, mushrooms were being used much more frequently by foodservice operators, which helped make them more popular."

    As such, Caito says, the pack sizes for retail increased accordingly, "and even though they're still a delicacy, they've become a mainstay, with white buttons contributing nearly 60 percent of the average store's mushroom sales."

    Caito continues: "The neat thing about mushrooms is that they're a cultivated item—they're almost manufactured—which offers very predictable harvesting, and thus they get a lot of ad time because they're so easy to promote. Plus, Americans are finding more and more uses for them." As an example of this versatility, Caito cites one of his family's favorite at-home meals: mushroom burgers.

    "We just marinate a portabella mushroom cap and grill it like a hamburger; garnish with cheese, tomatoes, onions, and perhaps some hot peppers; serve it on a hamburger bun; and enjoy an absolutely wonderful meatless meal," Caito explains.

    Category commitment

    Dan Lucovich, v.p. of marketing for Worthington, Pa.-based Creekside Mushrooms, Ltd.—which bills itself as the world's largest single producer of fresh mushrooms—says retail mushroom sales peak during the holiday season from November through January, while foodservice use of mushrooms is particularly strong in the summer.

    Creekside, whose products are marketed under the Moonlight brand, operates what it says is the world's largest underground mushroom farm, featuring a 150-mile labyrinth of tunnels originally created by limestone mining. The naturally friendly growing environment provides ideal year-round conditions for top-quality mushrooms, Lucovich says.

    Servicing retail customers from Western New York to Wisconsin, Lucovich says Creekside pro-- duces everything related to its mushroom business on-site, from the blending of raw materials to the finished packages that are shipped to customers. The company's value-added packaging features a full line of colorful trays, pre-printed film, and color-coded cases in a variety of sizes with a sell-by date code providing 10 days of store shelf life at delivery, or a Julian date code on the day of packaging.

    "Right now, we're in a total organic program," says Lucovich, noting that while Creekside markets only a small percentage of its products as certified organic, all of its mushrooms are produced as such. "Up to now, there hasn't been a large market for organic mushrooms, but we're currently working on ideas and concepts regarding the best ways to market the fact that as far as we know, we're the only producer in the U.S. that produces mushrooms that are chemical- and pesticide-free."

    In general, commitment to the cate- gory— which for many has been an afterthought—is the single best way to maximize mushroom sales, according to Lucovich. "Retailers that have display cases that highlight all of the varieties provide consumers the opportunity to check out the full presentation and hopefully to walk away buying one or more of the items on display."

    He continues, "Probably 90 percent of the time they're going to buy a white mushroom, but you really need all the other varieties to attract them to and drive the whole mushroom category."

    Once thought to be devoid of major vitamins and nutrients, mushrooms are now gaining respect as a good source of potassium and copper, with some types featuring significant amounts of three B-complex vitamins. (See the sidebar on page 82.) That's a message being put to good use in the Produce for Better Health Foundation's "5 A Day the Color Way" campaign, which urges consumers to eat a colorful variety of fruits and vegetables by choosing at least one serving daily from each of five color groups (blue/purple, green, white, yellow/orange, and red).

    Health benefits

    And there appears to be even more encouraging news relative to eating mushrooms: A recent study reveals that diets high in mushrooms have been shown to inhibit aromatase, an enzyme that controls the production of estrogen, which can stimulate the growth of breast cancer.

    This month, consumers will become aware of perhaps the most important health benefit of mushrooms: They're high in selenium, a nutrient that shows promising signs of helping reduce the risk of prostate cancer. A promotional partnership between the Washington, D.C.-based National Prostate Cancer Coalition and the Eastern Mushroom Marketing Cooperative of Kennett Square, Pa. was launched at the start of both National Mushroom Month and National Prostate Cancer Awareness Month. The promotion, which is expected to continue for more than one year, flags packages of mushrooms across the eastern half of the country with blue ribbons to raise awareness about reducing the risk of prostate cancer by eating a healthful diet and undergoing health screenings.

    The Dublin, Calif.-based Mushroom Council, which has continued to operate despite a 2001 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that it can no longer collect mandatory assessments for the purposes of advertising and promotion, has not let the high court's decision cloud its vision to remain a viable, useful resource for the industry.

    To the contrary, after a two-year process to develop a game plan that's both "relevant and valuable, we're now an R&D resource for the industry," says council president Bart Minor. Noting that the Mushroom Council's $1.5 million budget has been redeployed toward broad-based market research, Minor says, "We've taken a step back so we can help the industry have a better understanding of what's to come, and where the opportunities and threats are in the future, so that retailers can make better marketing decisions."

    Providing information in the areas of nutrition, value-added opportunities, and new product development for both retail and foodservice accounts will take precedence in the council's multitiered efforts, Minor says.

    Image enhancement

    "We keep hearing that purchase decisions are now driven by convenience and value, so we want to find out more about what that means, how it translates into actionable product changes and development, and new ways to stimulate greater consumption at retail," he says.

    "Take, for instance, the quality of mushrooms on display at retail. We suspect if that could be improved, retailers could probably increase mushroom sales five times more than any advertising campaign ever would," Minor notes. On the foodservice side, he says, "Those operators are just as interested in convenience and value and getting a handle on costs while still enhancing the image of what they're serving.

    "Mushrooms came on the scene hot and heavy about 15 years ago from a fresh standpoint, but it seems we've reached a point where the novelty has worn off, so where do we go from here?" Minor continues. "The nutritional value of mushrooms is just beginning to be understood in this country, and that will be a very important part of it."

    Moreover, mushrooms are still a mystery to many people. "The only things more perishable than mushrooms are berries, so education is also needed to teach people how to handle them," Minor says. "I think the industry is ready to go to the next plateau. There are all kinds of opportunities and lots of knowledge to be gained, not just by the producers and sellers, but certainly by users as well."

    Looking to the future

    Commenting on the Mushroom Council's ongoing organizational makeover, Minor says its ultimate goal is to excel at making research information accessible via "a valuable online interactive site with actionable, useful tools.

    "It's an ambitious dream, but our six- to 18-month goal is to have something online where retailers and suppliers can look at best practices; input their own demographics, sales, shrink, and related information; and analyze what they would be able to do to create new shelf sets, merchandising, and promotional programs based on their unique situations."

    One of the council's first projects in its post-promotion existence is a recently released research study conducted by the Perishables Group in 2001 and 2002 to understand the factors that cause shrink in the mushroom category. (See the sidebar on page 82.)

    "The most important point of the shrink study," Minor says, "alludes to fact that the quality of mushrooms is extremely important. The main message to the retailer is found in results of a case study where we analyzed the value of best practices and ended up with retailers increasing their bottom line in the mushroom category by a full one-third, which is certainly a compelling finding."

    When all's said and done, Minor says there's a lot of room for improvement with mushrooms—not just for the mushroom industry, but also for retailers' pocketbooks.

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