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Economy doesn't dampen growth of this retail, foodservice category

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 
fresh foods.

The success of sushi in times of financial crisis 
is 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 North America.

Particularly in foodservice, the popularity of sushi is evident.

"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 areas."

That's because sushi is not considered an economical food, even though the pricing at retail is "not bad," according to Johns.

"A package of California rolls runs less than $6, so it's not all that expensive. But you can get a sandwich for $3.99.

"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 California roll.

"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 top-three sellers.

"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," 
he says.

"[Customers] tend to be well educated about health and nutrition and appreciate companies that have a specific social agenda."

The company is in the process of establishing 
more 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 Council."

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 Columbia

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