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Q&A with Monterey Mushrooms' Mike O'Brien

This industry is dynamic. Whether you are sitting on the buy-side of the business curating a diverse selection of fresh produce from across the globe, or cultivating that same produce at the source, there is rarely a dull moment. And if you are Mike O’Brien you have experienced both. Mike brings more than 45 years of insights in the industry to his current role, with 42 of those years at Schnuck Markets where he started as a bagger. Mike was then promoted to a clerk and next a storemanager, working his way through a host of Schnuck Markets’ leadership roles before landing the position of VP of Produce and Floral which he held for 15 years. Mike now has nearly three years as the Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Monterey Mushrooms to add to his incredible history.

So, what has Mike learned during his time on both sides of the fresh produce transaction, and what does he see for Monterey Mushrooms moving forward? Plenty, which he shares with us here.

How has 42 years in retail, informed your perspective on how you react and plan on the supply-side of the industry?

From a very young age in retail, from bagger to Vice President, I was taught that customer service was paramount and the golden key for success. Without customers, we do not have jobs. I believe that to my core.

Mushroom Pile

In my new role at Monterey Mushrooms, that philosophy still stands true. The difference is that my customers are now the buyers. Their customers are the consumer. But what is important is that we all understand that we are in business to serve the consumer. So, at Monterey Mushrooms, we partner with our customers in service of the consumer.

A key component of customer service is proper planning. We lived by planning in retail, and the same is true on the supply-side. It's a different business model but planning is the key to success for the customer and, ultimately, the consumer.

What new appreciations have you developed since working on the supply-side?


I have more of an appreciation for what farmers do. The public knows very

little about what it takes to get fresh produce to the supermarkets, restaurants, and finally, to their fork. Fresh produce, whether mushrooms or another produce item, is a miracle of nature.

Mushrooms are grown indoors year-round. Before making their way to your plate, mushrooms go through a growing process in a highly controlled environment unlike that of any other produce item.

What lessons and insights have the past two and a half years brought to your career?

It’s all about people. No matter what your job: retail, grower-shipper, or volunteer. Be humble and show respect for others. Life is short and we all want to accomplish a lot. But none of us accomplish much without the help and support of others. And even if you could accomplish your goals alone, what fun would that be?

What's next for 2017? What do you predict in terms of mushroom consumption, trends, and buying behaviors?

Mushroom demand and consumption are on the rise and will continue to grow. People want food that taste good- and that’s where mushrooms come into play with their rich, savory flavor! Mushrooms pack a nutritious punch and can easily be incorporated into America’s favorite meals. There are many easy ways to incorporate mushrooms into meal planning to reap their health benefits. Mushrooms happen to be one of those lucky foods that take on a broth-like or meaty flavor because of their umami characteristics. They are versatile and can be used in just about any meal.

Mushroom Pile

People are more educated now than ever before about health and nutrition, and we’re seeing a big shift in eating habits towards healthier choices. If you’re looking to keep off the pounds, adding mushrooms to your diet could help. Mushrooms are loaded with antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, and have been shown to have an impact on hunger and weight. Since mushrooms are considered a low-energy-density food, you’ll get fewer calories in larger food portions.

We have all heard of “Meatless Mondays,” more and more people are becoming vegetarians. Therefore, a portabella burger, or a veggie burger with mushroom ingredients are on many menus and are in high demand. Plus, they taste great.

Flexitarians will embrace the “Blend.” This effort communicates to consumers about how blending fresh mushrooms with ground meat (beef, pork, or poultry) can enhance flavor, and substantially reduce fat, sodium, and calories. It has a fast-growing following across the country in school lunch programs and in colleges. Blend is one of the trends that are being offered at restaurants. That is, the blending of finely chopped mushrooms into recipes that call for ground meat to reduce calorie/sodium/fat content and add an extra serving of vegetables to the plate.

The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) Advisory Committee supported adoption of healthy dietary patterns that are plant and grain focused, and mushrooms help bring a healthy solution to a snack or meal! The guidelines identified vitamin D, potassium, and dietary fiber as under-consumed nutrients. Mushrooms will help people incorporate these nutrients into their diets to meet the new 2015-2020 DGA guidelines.

Monterey Mushrooms

Vitamin D helps bodies absorb calcium which is important for building and maintaining good bone health throughout life. If you are exposed to insufficient sunlight, you may be deficient in vitamin D. Mushrooms are the only item in the produce department that naturally contain vitamin D. That’s why we offer a line of mushrooms, high in vitamin D. Just a 3 oz serving meets the FDA’s recommended daily intake.

Sustainability and conservation driven by millennials continues to grow. Recycling is fine and that’s why we offer the R-pet plastic till. But the truth is that they are like a plastic water bottle and may end up in the landfill for hundreds of years. The better option is a paperboard till that’s 100 percent biodegradable, recyclable, and compostable. Since its introduction in 2012, we’ve re-engineered the till a handful of times to increase durability without compromising its sustainability.

How do you see organic playing a role as the category evolves?

Organic mushroom consumption will continue to grow. We are converting farms, and adding square footage to keep up with the demand and satisfy the customer/consumer, which closes the loop. The trends will all be driven by the consumer. It’s our job to satisfy those wants and needs. That is our goal at Monterey Mushrooms.