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Ben (Yun Joon) Park holds a package of king oyster mushrooms ready for delivery.

PETER POWER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

The lowly mushroom is emerging as a secret weapon for profit-hungry grocers.

Supermarkets are trying to lure shoppers with pricier exotic varieties ranging from king oysters to enokis and cinnamon caps. The gradual shift to specialty mushrooms from traditional white-button types is driven by retailers' bid to cash in on a growing number of new Canadians who seek out familiar products and foodies looking for something different.

Local mushroom producers are responding with higher end, laboratory-grown mushrooms and wild varieties or conventional compost-based ones cultivated in dark spaces. They're touting them as highly nutritional, calorie friendly and a vegetarian's dream. Grocers are stocking as many as 30 or more different kinds of mushrooms in their produce sections, banking on them to help draw shoppers from the less lucrative packaged goods aisles.

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"The once humble mushroom is finally having its day," said Dan Branson, senior director of Loblaw Cos. Ltd.'s private-label lines and a produce specialist.

As grocers try to pump up fresh food sales, they're counting on mushrooms to create a "halo effect" of pulling shoppers into the produce section and at the same time pick up other ingredients for their recipes. It's part of retailers' broader push to rev up fresh produce and meat sales as they struggle with declining prices in other aisles in a brutally crowded market.

The "halo effect" is part of retailers' broader push to rev up fresh produce and meat sales as they struggle with declining prices in other aisles in a brutally crowded market.

Specialty mushrooms are driving higher sales in the category, with prices that can be up to 10 to 30 times steeper than those of basic white button varieties. Imported truffles even can go for as much as $1,500 a pound. And while overall mushroom sales rose 2 per cent to $266.5-million in the year to March 8, sales of oyster mushrooms jumped 26 per cent to $2.7-million and sales of shiitake varieties climbed 14 per cent to $3.4-million, according to market researcher Nielsen.

"Specialty is where the growth is," said Carman Allison, vice-president of consumer insights at Nielsen.

Ben (Yun Joon) Park knows all about the evolution of specialty mushrooms. His Enviro Mushroom Farm in Burlington, Ont., looks more like a blend of a sci-fi laboratory and high-tech manufacturer than a greenhouse. Employees walk about the building in white lab coats, take an air shower before entering the production rooms and spray their feet and hands with alcohol.

Mr. Park grows his organic mushrooms in plastic bottles from a mixture of sawdust, rice bran, wheat bran, soy bean meal and liquid mushroom "spawn," or seed. "It looks like the Samsung semi-conductor manufacturing factory," he said. His sales have grown to $8-million a year from less than $500,000 in 2001. One of his customers is Loblaw, which recently introduced private-label President's Choice king oyster and other mushrooms, shipped from his labs. Other retailers he supplies include Sobeys Inc., Wal-Mart Canada Corp. and Longo's.

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"It's come a long way from your basic white button mushroom," said Mimmo Franzone, produce director at Longo Brothers Fruit Markets Inc.

Longo's is enjoying "double-digit" sales gains in specialty mushrooms with such exotic lines as chanterelle, blue foot and black lobster, he said. They're meatier tasting than the basics; some varieties cost as much as $32 a pound, for lobster mushrooms, compared with $3 to $4 for white basics. Delta, B.C.-based Choice's Markets carry wild Morel mushrooms for $100 a pound. "It gives you a talking point that other people don't have," said David Wilson, produce operations manager at Choice's.

Loblaw is among grocers moving to offer mushrooms among their private-label lines, giving the retailer more control in providing shoppers with a "treasure hunt" of unusual, local offerings, Mr. Branson said. Less than 1 per cent of its mushrooms now are produced outside of Canada, more than in the past (although it did not track the percentage previously). It now trumpets them with the label "product of Canada" rather than "packed in Canada."

Still while grocers are enjoying higher mushroom prices – in April, they jumped 4 per cent to an average $7.97 a kilogram from a year earlier, Statistics Canada says – they also face deflation in basic white button mushrooms, Mr. Allison said. And retailers grapple with having to toss fresh mushrooms after as little as a day because they're delicate and bruise easily, Mr. Wilson said. "You can't get them wet because that will just turn them into big piles of goo."

At the well-lit Wylie Mycologicals Ltd. at Bass Lake, Ont., Bill and Micky Wylie grow such novelties as Lion's Mane, Cinnamon Cap, Pink Oysters, Pioppino, Wood Ear and Reishi in plastic bags while supplying $20 grow-your-own specialty mushroom kits to Loblaw and Sobeys. Their lab "will hopefully dispel the 'shovelling manure in the dark' image that mushroom production calls up," Ms. Wylie said.

Susur Lee, chef at Lee Restaurant in Toronto, used the Wylies' exotic mushrooms in his dishes for years. Asian recipes such as "mock chicken" often substitute mushrooms for meat, he said. Specialty varieties can be expensive, but little of them is needed to enjoy their rich flavours. "It's worth every single penny."

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