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Trend Watch - Sushi sales heading nowhere but up

Demand for sushi expands with consumers' need for convenient, healthful meals on the run

Its simplicity and elegance give sushi visual
    appeal. - Photo courtesy of RA Sushi Bar
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 industry.

"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 Okami Foods.

The 10-year-old company offers a line of fully cooked maki and nigiri sushi items with a shelf life of seven to 12 days.

"[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 trend."

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 brûlèe.

"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 food cost."

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 sauces."

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 generation.

"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 says.

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 experience."

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 even fruit.

"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 Columbia


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