« October 2006 Table of Contents
Trend Watch - Sushi sales heading nowhere but up
Demand for sushi expands with consumers' need for
convenient, healthful meals on the run
By Lauren Kramer
October 01, 2006
Sushi has proven it is no passing fad among U.S. consumers.
The Japanese specialty started with a tentative entrance on the
continent a decade or so ago and quickly became mainstream.
Sushi is a regular household word; consumers are buying it for
lunch, learning how to make it at home and arriving in hordes
for the cheap, late-night, all-you-can-eat sushi dinners
offered at many restaurants.
Technomic, a food industry research and consulting firm,
expects the growth of sushi bars and restaurants to continue at
10 to 20 percent annually for the next five years, compared to
5 percent growth projected for the overall foodservice
"Consumers want food that's healthy, delicious, convenient
and easy to prepare, and sushi satisfies all those needs,"
explains Jon Amidei, corporate VP of sales and marketing at
The 10-year-old company offers a line of fully cooked maki
and nigiri sushi items with a shelf life of seven to 12
"[Sushi] provides high-quality protein, often with fresh
vegetables, and offers an alternative to heavier, bread-based
and deep-fried convenience foods," Amidei notes. "It can be
served at a variety of eating occasions, from the proverbial
lunchbox to a formal dinner party.
"And it's popular at all times of year. As a finger-food,
it's extremely convenient and taps into the meals-on-the-go
Okami's product line includes staples like California rolls
with avocado, as well as exotic items like barbecue unagi eel
rolls, and sushi made with Pacific blue crab and wasabi shrimp.
The company's customer list includes retail, foodservice and
club giants like Costco and Sam's.
Taka Kamogari, a buyer at Nishimoto Trading Co., agrees
that sushi's healthful attributes - especially compared to
other proteins like beef - are what have made this food so
popular. Nishimoto Trading distributes sushi ingredients to
more than 10,000 restaurants, distributors and grocery stores
in the United States, and the number keeps growing as the
demand for sushi increases.
Michael Gilligan, executive chef at Conrad Hotels, can
testify to that demand. His restaurant, Atrio, which blends
Latin and Asian cuisine, serves a sushi bento box at lunchtime,
containing miso soup, sushi of the day and a green tea crème
"Sushi's popularity has been pretty steady for the past five
years or so," Gilligan says. "Though we're not a typical
Japanese restaurant, we can still see the benefit of sushi,
because it appeals to a lot
of people and it's good for my
Even better, sushi looks pretty on a plate.
"I love sushi's simplicity and elegance," Gilligan
confesses. "The colors make plating a dream, and we can play
around a bit with the sauces. For example, I like to use blends
of miso and yuzu (a Japanese citrus fruit) for the dipping
Sushi is certainly easy to find today. With 75 restaurants
nationwide, Benihana is the largest U.S. chain of
Japanese-theme and sushi restaurants. Its empire includes 57
Benihana teppanyaki restaurants, seven Haru sushi restaurants
and 11 RA Sushi Bars. In July 2006, the company reported a 7.9
percent increase in restaurant sales, from $73.6 million last
year to $79.4 million.
RA Sushi's VP and co-founder, Scott Kilpatrick, believes
sushi's popularity is driven, in large part, by the younger
"Young people are more adventurous today, and sushi allows
them to be more creative with their food selections by stepping
out of the norm and making fun, new dining decisions," he
RA's primary target market is adults aged 24 to 44, educated
white-collar professionals with annual household incomes in
excess of $40,000.
"We're constantly reinventing ourselves at RA in an effort
to appeal to new sushi lovers," Kilpatrick says. "It's also
important that we create fun and exciting dishes for consumers
who want more than just the traditional nigiri and sashimi.
"I feel that the popularity of sushi was driven by Japanese
cuisine's reputation for healthfulness, Americans' appetite for
exotic flavors and the newfound entertainment of the dining
Sushi has become an attractive food to people of varying
cultural backgrounds and age groups because its ingredients are
so familiar, says Amidei.
"Someone said recently that sushi is the new nachos, and who
could argue with that?" he asks. "Any culture that has embraced
rice and fish - and what culture hasn't? - seems to embrace the
concept of sushi. The name might be Asian, but the concept of
delicious, satisfying finger-food is universal."
Even those who are averse to the "fish factor" of sushi are
drawn to it when they find out it can also mean vegetable
rolls, with combinations like avocado and cream cheese, and
"Consumers may be reluctant to try sushi at first, as many
think of sushi only as raw fish, Amidei says. "We rely on
in-store demos to build trial.
"Once consumers see that sushi can also mean vegetable
rolls, or when they sample the fully cooked Cajun shrimp rolls
and realize that the fillings can be highly flavorful, they are
then more open to trying other items."
Twenty years from now, it's unlikely sushi will look the
same as it does now, Amidei predicts. "It may evolve a bit
along the way, with new ingredients, combinations and styling,"
he muses. "But we'll leave that to the future. For now, sushi
is the hottest cold food in town."
SFlb Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in British