The mushroom industry says it can tell its story in chapters.

For starters:

  • Chapter 1: Nutrition;
  • Chapter 2: Specialties to suit a variety of tastes;
  •  Chapter 3: Growing popularity; and
  • Chapter 4: Convenience.

The list, marketing agents say, goes on like an encyclopedia.

For whatever reason, consumers are responding, according to the San Jose, Calif.-based Mushroom Council, which released sales numbers from 2010.

A few of the numbers:

  • 2010 marks the third year of sustained growth;
  • 3.6% jump in annual sales;
  • 3% growth in anumber of pounds sold; and
  • Fresh mushrooms outperformed the produce category at large in annual sales growth.

The council said fresh mushrooms outperformed produce retail sales as a whole in terms of both dollars and pounds sold, according to data from FreshLook Marketing for the period ending Jan. 2. Over the past year, the produce category as a whole experienced a 3.3% increase in dollar sales and a 1.6% increase in volume sold, while mushrooms grew at a larger pace, registering a 3.6% increase in dollar sales and a 3.0% increase in volume sold.

That translated to $810 million in annual sales and 200 million pounds sold — the third straight year of mushroom sales increases in retail stores, following a 1.3% sales increase in pounds in 2008 and a 7.7% increase in pounds sold in 2009.

Many factors

Bart Minor, Mushroom Council president and chief executive officer, said many factors contributed to the sales increases.

“Everything is lining up. It’s not any single meal occasion or cuisine or environmental or social benefit. It’s all of them,” Minor said. “We seem to line up with every single trend right now, like weight management, vitamin D deficiency, the aging population looking for that fountain of youth.”

At a micro level, sales of white button mushrooms grew by 2.3% in sales and 2.9% in pounds sold. Brown mushrooms increased by 5.8% in sales and 3.1% in pounds sold. Specialty mushroom sales rose by 9.3% in sales and 4.6% in pounds sold.

“The reason mushrooms are so popular, I think, is driven a lot by Americans’ interest in the Food Network and foodies —sort of the health factor,” said Fred Recchiuti, marketing director at Avondale, Pa.-based Basciani Mushroom Farms.

Health and utility are drivers of sales, said Kevin Donovan, sales manager at Kennett Square, Pa.-based Phillips Mushroom Farms.

The nutritional benefits are definitely a plus, he said, but also the consumer has come to percieve mushrooms as something they can add to dinners for something a little different.

Steady year-round

Demand doesn’t seem to have any real peaks or valleys, said Harvey Mitchler, manager of sales and marketing for Abbotsford, British Columbia-based Champ’s Mushrooms.

“The availability of mushrooms year-round has helped grow the category. Other products are often in short supply or very expensive at times, whereas mushrooms are always available, and the price is fixed or steady.”

Signs of continued growth are apparent, said James Sweatt, sales director at Gonzales, Texas-based Kitchen Pride Mushroom Farms Inc.

“Everything is continuing to show a continued growth in the category,” he said. “We’re continuing to show a 4(% to) 6% growth.”

It’s difficult to pinpoint one cause of the category’s growth, but convenience is one of them, said Tom DeMott, chief operating officer at San Ramon, Calif.-based Encore Associates, which analyzes research data for the Mushroom Council.

“Certainly, sliced mushrooms are growing,” he said. “There’s a general trend of moving away from whole. No. 2, the crimini, or the brown, mushrooms are growing very well. They’ve been basically in double digits until this year, before flattening out.”

That demand has continued to grow through a sluggish economy is a positive sign, said Joe Caldwell, chairman of the council and vice president of Watsonville, Calif.-based Monterey Mushrooms Inc.

“Mushrooms’ demand maintained a pretty good solid track record throughout the economic downturn, more so in retail,” Caldwell said. “Foodservice took the big hit because people stopped eating out, but the people who stopped eating out were eating at home, and mushroom sales reflected that. We had 7% to 8% growth in the retail sector the last two years.”

A “repositioning” of mushrooms has proved effective in boosting sales in the category, said Gary Schroeder, director of Kennett Square-based Oakshire Mushroom Farm, which does business as Dole Mushrooms.

“I think it’s getting traction that mushrooms are a healthy item that have a lot of nutrition. That’s different from how they were positioned 10 years ago,” he said. “The vitamin D piece is very significant. We’re in the middle of a launch of some new vitamin D items and we’re really pleased with the response.”