(Sept. 4) Foodservice has been hit hardest by the economic downturn, but mushroom grower-shippers are still finding ways to get their product in restaurants in new and interesting ways.

A recent initiative by the San Jose-based Mushroom Council is aimed at increasing foodservice use of fresh mushrooms, said Bart Minor, the council’s president.

The council currently is working with about 30 restaurant chains on ways to get more mushrooms on menus, Minor said.

And soon, the effort could begin to pay big dividends.

“This fall, I’ve been told, a major chain is going to make a big splash with mushroom items,” Minor said. “We’re expecting a big pull of demand.”

With restaurants, which make menu changes on whims, the proof will be in the pudding — when the items actually show up on diners’ plates, Minor said.

But for now, at least, he’s optimistic.

“Menu development can be dicey up until the last minute, but we’re very excited,” he said.

The usual summer mushroom market doldrums, combined with a sluggish economy, were showing up on grower-shippers’ bottom lines, said Paul Frederic, senior vice president of sales and marketing for To-Jo Fresh Mushrooms Inc., Avondale, Pa.

But the retail and foodservice segments of the company’s business weren’t equally affected, he said.

“The softness is more in the foodservice business,” he said. “Retail seems to be perking along pretty nicely.”

But not even all foodservice channels have been hit equally hard hit by the economic downturn, Frederic said.

“The pizza business hasn’t been sliding,” he said. “It’s been more white tablecloth. There’s been some stepping down — those consumers are going to the more casual-style restaurants. There’s a fair amount of info leading to that conclusion.”

Mike Reed, director of Western region sales for Monterey Mushrooms Inc., Watsonville, Calif., said that “stepping down” as occurred within the mushroom category, as well. Some pizza companies, for instance, have pulled portabellas off pies and swapped in the cheaper white buttons.

Overall, while its retail business is up slightly, Monterey’s foodservice sales have been down about 15%, Reed said.

Restaurants looking to cut costs realize, Reed said, that they can take the mushrooms off the pizza or out of the salad without losing customers. It’s not, he said, the same thing as taking the pepperoni off the pizza or the lettuce out of the salad.

Fred Recchiuti, marketing director for Basciani Mushroom Farms, Avondale, Pa., had heard numbers suggesting a dip in one important segment of the foodservice sector for the mushroom industry.

Fortunately, he said, the trend hasn’t found its way to Basciani yet.

“I heard there are stats going out that show delivery pizza is down, but ours has been stable,” he said. “Pizza foodservice is big business for us.”

Basciani tips heavily toward all foodservice — not just pizza — Recchiuti said.

“We don’t do much retail,” he said. “We’ve really positioned ourselves as foodservice specialists.”

In addition to its pizza-related business, Basciani taps into the large middle slice of the foodservice pie.

“White tablecloth is only about 5% of our business,” he said. “We’re focused on the family-style chains.”

That business has been growing for Basciani, Recchiutti said. And with the economy souring, and more and more consumers watching their pocketbooks, it’s good timing for the company.