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    The Big Blend Theory

    Mushroom mavens back a new program expected to yield explosive category growth.

    By Jennifer Strailey

    A strategic shift in the national promotion of fresh fungi may well lead to 2015 making retail history as the Year of the Mushroom.

    ?Traditionally, the Mushroom Council hasn?t done much direct promotion in the retail landscape, but for 2015, we have a new plan with our retail blendability promotions,? says Kathleen Preis, marketing manager for the San Jose, Calif.-based council.

    Mushroom blendability ? the culinary technique of blending fresh chopped mushrooms with ground meat in entrées such as hamburgers, meatballs and meatloaf ? has taken off largely in the noncommercial foodservice segment, including schools, health care facilities and corporate dining, the council notes.

    ?One of the hottest trends in mushrooms today is blendability,? concurs Rick Angelucci, general manager of Phillips Gourmet Inc., in Kennett Square, Pa. ?There are many institutions using a blend of 50 percent mushroom and 50 percent beef to make healthier burgers, meatballs, tacos and meatloaves, which lowers the fat and calories by 25 percent to 30 percent, and saturated fat by 35 percent or more,? he explains.

    The Mushroom Council?s new approach, which celebrates not only the nutritional benefits, but also the enhanced flavor, of mushroom blendability, is targeting grocery stores and foodservice.

    ?We believe 2015 will go down in history as a pivotal year for the Mushroom Council and the evolution of mushroom blendability,? says Council Chairman Anthony D?Amico, president of To-Jo Mushrooms, in Avondale, Pa.

    In 2015, the council?s more tailored, retailer-specific promotions will replace its successful Swap It or Top It campaign, which debuted in 2014. Swap It or Top It attracted some 54 retail participants, Preis notes, including Sunbury, Pa.-based Weis Markets.

    ?This summer, Weis Markets promoted a mushroom-blended burger every Saturday, and also featured the campaign in its Healthy Bites Magazine,? Preis observes. The grocer demoed burgers crafted from a blend of mushrooms, blue cheese and beef. ?The results were extraordinary,? Preis says of Weis? 60 percent promotion-long sales spike in all three categories: mushrooms, meat and blue cheese.

    Raley?s to Launch Blendability

    To pilot its 2015 blendability campaign, the Mushroom Council is partnering with West Sacramento, Calif.-based Raley?s Supermarkets. Bob Murphy, VP of marketing and sales for Premier Mushrooms Inc., in Colusa, Calif., is spearheading the collaboration on behalf of the council.

    ?This is a very exciting time for the mushroom trade. It?s the first time that not only the Mushroom Council, but the whole industry, really believes in the blend,? says Murphy.

    Raley?s, which is in the process of remodeling three of its stores to accommodate chef-led kitchens, is slated to launch the blendability program in the revamped stores in the next few months. The grocer will showcase mushroom blendability in its house-made meatloaf, made fresh each day.

    Down the road, Murphy envisions making the blendability campaign available to all grocers, even those without on-site chefs. ?Another phase will be kits,? he explains. This will allow retailers to provide customers with the opportunity to create a freshly prepared meal featuring a blend of ground beef and mushrooms at home in minutes.

    The Mushroom Council campaign will be supported by retailer-targeted POS, as well as consumer outreach. ?Social media will certainly play a big role in these promotions,? says Preis. ?We?ll also use geographic targeting, by inviting local customers to come to Raley?s, for example, when we?re sampling blended burgers at a particular store.?

    A new microsite, featuring blendability recipes, marketing materials and more, will become accessible from the Mushroom Council website in 2015.

    The Boom in ?Shrooms

    Mushroom sales of all types are on the rise. According to the Mushroom Council, brown mushrooms were up 7.1 percent for the 52 weeks ending Sept. 7, 2014, specialty mushrooms were up 10.5 percent for the same time period, and white mushrooms ? the longtime category leader ? registered steady 0.3 percent growth.

    The most encouraging aspect of this trend, according to Preis, is that increased sales of brown and specialty mushrooms haven?t negatively impacted sales of the category leader. ?They aren?t cannibalizing sales from white mushrooms,? she notes.

    True growth in the mushroom category is the result of several factors, continues Preis. ?Mushroom Council promotions, greater consumer awareness about the culinary and health benefits of mushrooms, as well as the fact that mushrooms contribute to all meal dayparts ? breakfast, lunch and dinner? ? have put this nutrient-rich produce item in more and more shopping baskets, she points out.

    ?The white button mushroom is still the leader in sales in the mushroom category, but the specialty mushrooms are gaining a lot of momentum, which we think is due to all of the cooking shows on TV,? says Phillips Gourmet?s Angelucci. ?Everyone wants to be a gourmet chef, and mushrooms like portabella, baby bella and shiitake fit right into their meal preparation.?

    Flavor and Nutrition

    ?One of the points we want to get across with blendability is that mushrooms are not a filler. They?re a gourmet item that enhances the flavor,? Premier?s Murphy asserts. ?It?s like people who love garlic adding garlic to their favorite dish.?

    While the new blendability campaign spotlights the culinary benefits of adding mushrooms to ground beef, such as flavor, moisture and overall texture, the nutritional benefits are equally compelling.

    Cutting fat, cholesterol and calories is enticing to many consumers, as are flavor and convenience. ?As we get more information out about how easy it is to incorporate mushrooms into diets, mushrooms for the first time have moved form side dish to center plate,? Murphy says. ?People are using mushrooms like portabellas in place of hamburgers for Meatless Mondays, or cutting them like steak. It?s the versatility of mushrooms that has them being used more and more every day.?

    Angelucci agrees: ?Today?s consumer is very health-conscious. Mushrooms fit right into a healthy diet by being low in calories, fat-free and cholesterol-free, not to mention having antioxidants and vitamins to help maintain the immune system and provide energy.?

    Sustainability

    When it comes to the hottest trends in mushrooms, Bill Litvin, SVP of sales and the national account manager for Temple, Pa.-based Giorgio Fresh Co., says organic and sustainable continue to tick consumers? boxes and top shopping lists.

    ?Consumers are doing their homework to constantly search for healthy products,? Litvin says. ?They are also increasingly cognizant to purchase products from retailers or companies like Giorgio who make sustainability practices a priority.?

    Giorgio grows its mushrooms in a fully organic substrate, and is invested in integrated pest management.

    The company is equally focused on flavor and convenience, having recently launched a line of Stuffed Baby Bella Mushrooms with zesty fillings in three flavors: Parmesan Cheese, Artichokes and Spinach; Cheese and Imitation Bacon Bits; and Imitation Flavored Crab.

    ?This is a very exciting time for the mushroom trade. It?s the first time that not only the Mushroom Council, but the whole industry, really believes in the blend.?
    ?Bob Murphy, Premier Mushrooms Inc.

    ?Consumers are doing their homework to constantly search for healthy products.?
    ?Bill Litvin, Giorgio Fresh Co.

    By Jennifer Strailey
    • About Jennifer Strailey

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