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Economy doesn't dampen growth of this retail,
By Lauren Kramer
March 01, 2010
Sushi's popularity remains strong, and even during the
economic recession, consumers are voting with their wallets for
this bite-sized cuisine.
Deli-prepared- sushi dollar sales in the United States for
the 52 weeks ending Aug. 28, 2009, were up 7.8 percent, to more
than $340 million, compared to the prior year, according to the
Perishables Group, a Chicago-based market-research firm that
tracks and analyzes retail sales data of
The success of sushi in times of financial crisis
remarkable, considering it's a high-end food item, says James
Johns, manager of national accounts at AFC Corp. The Rancho
Dominguez, Calif., company operates sushi bars in supermarkets,
foodservice outlets, universities, offices and hospitals across
Particularly in foodservice, the popularity of sushi is
"The Aramarks of the world are starting to realize sushi is
a good alternative to Taco Bell and Burger King in their
regular food courts," says Johns.
Ten years ago the company had sushi bars in 400 to 500
stores; today it has more than 2,000.
"We've opened maybe 100 new stores a year lately, but the
numbers have been tapering off a little, partly due to the
recession," Johns says. "We tend to do better in high-end
stores, like Publix in Florida and the Food Emporium stores in
Manhattan. It's usually the stores that are in well-to-do
That's because sushi is not considered an economical food,
even though the pricing at retail is "not bad," according to
"A package of California rolls runs less than $6, so it's
not all that expensive. But you can get a sandwich for
"Also, despite the fact that 70 percent of what we sell is
cooked, there's still a stigma among some Americans that sushi
is raw fish, and as a result a lot of people who've never tried
it don't get into the category."
Within the sushi category, the most popular item is the
"It constitutes as much as a quarter of our total demand,"
says Johns. In Japanese restaurants, California rolls have a
menu penetration of 85.8 percent, according to MenuTrends
Direct, while shrimp-, salmon- and tuna-oriented sushi are the
"Once consumers know what kind of sushi they like, they just
keep buying that item," says Ken Blakeman, marketing director
at Genji Web, a Philadelphia-based supplier that provides sushi
and Japanese cuisine to Whole Foods Market, in addition to
operating in-store supermarket sushi bars. "We're trying to
educate our core customers about sustainability and help them
realize that they can make other choices.
"We just introduced wild albacore tuna in our sushi
offerings, and when we make it clear that it's a sustainably
fished species, our customers seem to appreciate that,"
"[Customers] tend to be well educated about health and
nutrition and appreciate companies that have a specific social
The company is in the process of establishing
partnerships with companies on the forefront of sustainable
farming. Genji Web sources salmon from Villa Organic in Norway
and Black Pearl organic, Shetland-farmed salmon from Martin
International in Boston. Its Pacific Northwest wild albacore is
supplied by American Tuna.
At AFC, Johns has not seen strong consumer demand for
sustainable sushi. "More people are paying
attention to it,
but in terms of our supply sources the availability [of
sustainable ingredients] is very limited right now, with the
exception of salmon and tuna. There are no suppliers of
sustainable eel and shrimp, for example," he says.
That will change in the future, according to Devan Nielsen,
president of the Novato, Calif.-based DNI Group, which provides
shrimp, softshell crab and appetizers to distributors. "In the
last six months, we've clearly seen an uptrend in requests for
information on sustainability from our clients, and 70 percent
of our products are sustainably harvested, following the
guidelines of organizations like the Aquaculture Certification
The popularity of sushi has not peaked yet, but nor has it
been immune to the effects of the recession, he says.
"The sushi industry is just feeling the effects of 10
percent unemployment, just like all of foodservice, but it will
continue to be a viable and growing segment of the restaurant
trade," he says.
Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in British