To-Jo Mushrooms wins two awards in value-added line’s first year

Four generations of D’Amicos have grown mushrooms in southeastern Pennsylvania, and each generation has built upon the previous.

Joseph A. D’Amico started growing mushrooms in 1932 after purchasing a stone quarry in Avondale that came with a small mushroom farm that could produce 50,000 pounds a year. He focused on the fresh market in a time when other mushroom growers were selling to canneries, and in doing so carved out a niche for the small farm. The second generation of D’Amicos took over the farm in 1955 and expanded the operation with a focus on quality for the fresh market, shipping product to 28 states in the eastern United States.

Joseph J. D’Amico started with the family business in 1974, and in 1980 he established To-Jo Mushrooms – named after his two sons, Tony and Joe – to pack and distribute fresh mushrooms. He grew the business for two decades, and in 1994 saw the need for value-added mushroom products that resulted in the founding of To-Jo Food Products. That new business offered national distribution of value-added mushrooms in a variety of cuts and marinades.

Today, his sons now run the family business. Tony and Joe D’Amico have grown To-Jo even further, introducing new products and sustainable programs that retailers are responding to. The company is diversified into four business operations: To-Jo Fresh distributes fresh white, brown and specialty mushrooms in foodservice and retail packs under To-Jo and other brands; Brownstone Mushrooms is the growing operation; To-Jo Transportation manages logistics with the company-owned truck and trailer fleet; and To-Jo Food Products manufacturers value-added mushroom products for retail under the Nita’s Nicest and To-Jo brands, as well as the Back-of-the-House brand for foodservice and ingredient customers.

This past year has been a good one for the company, said Paul Frederic, senior vice president of sales and marketing for To-Jo Mushrooms Inc. The company’s new product line received an Impact Award from the Produce Marketing Association in October and the company’s mushrooms received numerous awards at the Pennsylvania Farm Show in January, including the the coveted “Best Overall.” That’s an award the company will be talking about for a while, Frederic said.

On-the-Spot Gourmet

One of the new product lines from To-Jo is the On-the-Spot Gourmet line, which was recognized at the Produce Marketing Association’s Fresh Summit last fall with one of the show’s Impact Awards for Functionality/Technology.

The new line took about a year and half to develop, refining the flavors and the packaging, and at its introduction was available in four flavors: Caramelized Skillet, Kettle Cooked Portabella, Garlic Butter Sauté and Marinated Button Mushroom. They’re marketed alongside fresh and other packaged mushrooms in the refrigerated section of retailers’ produce departments, but Frederic points out that although they’re positioned with fresh mushrooms, the On-the-Spot Gourmet products are the only value-added mushrooms in the produce department.

The line is ready-to-eat and simple to use – a customer can heat the mushrooms for a few seconds and put them on a salad or steak, and they’ll have the appearance of a high-end, gourmet meal with little or no preparation time. The value-added products also have a longer shelf life than fresh product – up to 45 days, Frederic said, which means there’s less shrink and waste for retailers to deal with.

It’s the packaging that adds to the shelf life, and it’s also the packaging that set the product apart in the Impact Award judging. The On-the-Spot Gourmet mushrooms are packed in a 10-ounce square container that is tamper-evident, microwaveable and resealable. The other unique feature is the in-mold labeling, which means the label is printed onto the plastic itself so there’s never a problem with damaged, wet or scuffed labels. The package design leaves space on every surface that can be labeled, and To-Jo is using it to communicate the benefits of the value-added mushrooms to consumers, Frederic said. The package has serving suggestions and pictures of the mushrooms used in that product.

The Impact Award brought a lot of interest to the To-Jo booth at Fresh Summit, and Frederic said the rollout of the new line has been successful. The company hopes to add flavors this year, hopefully in time for the 2009 Fresh Summit show.

“Response has been really good so far,” Frederic said.

To-Jo is pushing the line with its retail customers through aggressive promotions and advertisements, as well as doing in-store demonstrations so customers can see how the product can be used.

Mushroom producers have an advantage over other crops because mushrooms are a naturally sustainable crop.

“Mushrooms are the ultimate in terms of recyclables,” Frederic said.

Compost is used for the initial growing medium, and at the end of the crop there’s a high-nutrient, compostable material left behind that can be used for potting soil or soil amendments.

To-Jo Mushrooms’ retail customers have been asking about sustainability more and more, and it’s not enough for the growing side to be sustainable. When retailers were first presented with the On-the-Spot Gourmet line, a few were concerned about the recyclability of the package. Frederic said the company had to justify the recycling number on the plastic container against the lowered environmental footprint of the container – although it might not be the easiest to recycle, it uses less plastic and has space and other benefits that lower the overall environmental impact.

Another sustainable initiative was rolled out in November at the company’s production facility. When To-Jo Mushroom expanded its operation five or six years ago, two generators were added in case of power failure. The company is now using those generators to reduce energy use during peak hours, which takes stress off the power grid and reduces costs for the plant. To-Jo Mushrooms partnered with EnerNOC Inc. for the sustainability program, in which the technology company monitors the energy use by the plant and tells the generators to kick on to alleviate strain on the power system. It’s good for the company and the community, Frederic said.

To-Jo Mushrooms is looking at ways to recycle waste in the plants and the oil from the trucks to reduce its environmental impact, and looking at more efficient vacuum coolers that use less energy. Sustainable production is important to retailers and the end user, so a sustainability program makes sense from that perspective as well as from a cost savings perspective.

“What was driving it was sheer economics and that was reinforced by customers,” Frederic said. “A lot of the things we’ve been able to implement do result in savings.”

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