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Since the start of the new millennium, mushrooms have seen a surge in popularity in foodservice applications.

mushrooms"In the last 10 years, we have seen an increase in the number of menu items containing mushrooms that restaurants offer," said Bill Litvin, vice president of sales, eastern region, for Giorgio Fresh Co. in Temple, PA. "This is due to greater consumer demand for mushrooms, restaurants adding new menu items with mushrooms and [those that are] including mushrooms in existing menu items. In addition, restaurants have developed a greater awareness of year-round mushroom use and of the varieties of mushrooms available."

Paul Frederic, senior vice president of sales and marketing for To-Jo Fresh Mushrooms Inc. in Avondale, PA, concurred, adding, "The Mushroom Council is currently putting a lot of emphasis and focus on foodservice."

Mr. Frederic, who serves on the foodservice advisory committee for the council, said that research data from Technomic, a research and consulting firm servicing the food and foodservice industry, helps the council and the industry to keep track of mushroom use.

"Data show that there has been a 12.5 percent increase in the number of menu items of the top 200 chain restaurants that include mushrooms since 2005," he said. "Technomic and MenuMine, a service of Foodservice Research Institute, both report that the strongest growth in terms of mushrooms has been in the casual, fast-casual and quick-service restaurant segments."

Fred Recchiuti, general manager of Basicani Mushrooms, also located in Avondale, PA, said that mushroom penetration at the foodservice level has doubled in the past three years.

"Mushrooms are featured as side dishes, toppings, in sauces and salads and as a pizza topping," said Mr. Recchiuti. "The most demanded pizza toppings have traditionally been pepperoni, sausage and mushrooms respectively, but in the last few years mushrooms have taken the number two spot."

Alan Kleinman, sales manager of Gourmet's Finest Mushroom Co. in Avondale, PA, said that a decade ago, high-end restaurants might have featured one dish, such as a mushroom stuffed with crabmeat.

"Today, however, mushrooms are being used in many ways and throughout the foodservice industry," he said. "Food networks, television cooking segments and celebrity chefs are all helping to drive the growing trend.

"And they are being used in many ways," Mr. Kleinman continued. "Quick-serve restaurants are having great success with specialty burgers with mushroom toppings, and white tablecloth establishments are using them in courses from appetizers to entrees and salads."

He pointed out that mushrooms have also become a favorite protein replacement with people who don't eat meat.

"Consumer demand has required that all levels of restaurants incorporate or expand mushrooms usage in their menu offerings," said Mr. Litvin. "While the number of menu items that include mushrooms has increased, the number of menu items featuring mushrooms has decreased since there is strong competition for 'feature' menu items."

Mr. Litvin added that fine dining restaurants use exotic mushrooms like Maitakes to create signature dishes.

"Casual and chain restaurants lean toward whites and browns, such as Portabellas, rather than exotic varieties," he said.

"Celebrity chefs at upscale restaurants use a higher percentage of specialty and wild mushrooms," said Mr. Frederic. "They like fresh Porcinis, for example, and other varieties that offer unique flavors. Unfortunately, this category has suffered the most during the economic downturn."

Mr. Frederic also agreed that casual and fast-casual restaurants are making the most out of their mushroom offerings, and that's great news for the industry.

"A very popular item today is McDonald's Angus Mushroom and Swiss burger," he said. "The success of this burger is big news for our industry because the volume is significant. Wendy's and Carl's Jr. offer a Portabella mushroom burger, both of which are successful menu items. Five Guys, the fastest-growing restaurant chain in the country, also offers a mushroom topping that is very popular."

He added that quick-serve and midline chains tend to stick with white mushrooms, but some are opting for more premium choices like Portabellas and Criminis. Papa John's Baby Portabella mushrooms are now a pizza topping in high demand among its patrons.

"We sell a tremendous amount of mushrooms to Asian populations," said Mr. Kleinman, "and that includes restaurants. Chinese buffets are a huge business across the country today, and they are very big users of mushrooms."

Mr. Recchiuti said that high-end restaurants are taking advantage of the flavors that exotic mushrooms can give their dishes.

"In the past, Maitakes, which are also called Hen of the Woods, were only seasonally available because they grew wild," he said. "Today we're able to produce them year-round in sanitary conditions under HACCP certification. Chefs are taking advantage of this availability to create elegant menu items."

He shared a bit of folklore surrounding the Hen of the Woods.

"Maitake means 'dancing mushrooms' in Chinese. People would dance for joy when they found them because they were worth their weight in silver," he said. "Samurai warriors would feast on them before going into battle because they believed they would make them invisible."

Mr. Recchiuti said that while Maitakes won't make you invisible, research has shown that they have anti-cancer properties, which is just one of the health benefits that mushrooms provide.

"Mushrooms are fat and cholesterol free and low in calories," said Mr. Litvin. "According to the National Restaurant Association's Restaurant Industry Forecast 2011, 71 percent of customers are trying to eat healthier at restaurants today versus two years ago. Customer demand becomes the driving force behind our foodservice customers using more mushrooms."

The industrial side of the foodservice sector is also taking full advantage of mushrooms today.

Colleges especially are pumping up the demand for more mushrooms on campus eateries, and the industry is seeing what Mr. Frederic said is "really nice growth."

"Statistics show that 88 percent of colleges are using mushrooms," he said. "Over 90 percent of business and industry operations, such as corporate cafeterias, are using mushrooms, and 89 percent of healthcare operations now feature them."

Mr. Recchiuti serves on the United Fresh Produce Association's Government Relations committee, which is working with Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" initiative.

"The goal is to allow for a salad bar in every school in the country, and that would include fresh mushrooms," he said. "We are reminded that most cities are produce 'deserts' in that bodegas and corner stores do not offer fresh produce. This means that it's imperative that kids eat healthy meals at school."

"Schools, hospitals and other foodservice establishments are using mushrooms to prepare upscale, tasty, low-fat, low-cholesterol vegetarian dishes that satisfy people in a low-cost healthy way," added Mr. Litvin.