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Retail Foodservice

Retailers Bask in the Beauty of Sushi

Theater and freshness drive sales in retail foodservice
Photograph: Shutterstock

Prepared foods used to mean rolling out rotisserie chickens and pulling pizzas, but today’s retail foodservice presents a feast of fresh and global flavors, with sushi programs increasingly stealing the show.

Supermarket sushi stations have seen “rapid success,” going toe to toe with meal kits and fueling sales growth, according to Nielsen.

“While traditional sushi sales have slowed from the 12% it averaged each of the past three years, poke bowls and poke stations, often complemented by [nigiri] or other sides, posted dollar sales growth of 9% for the 52 weeks ended June 30, 2018,” according to Nielsen.

ShopRite Does Sushi Right

“Sushi programs are very important to our foodservice programming,” says Geoffrey Wexler, VP of foodservice for Keasbey, N.J.-based Wakefern Food Corp. “The programs tick all the boxes required for the consumer of today: theater, freshness, unique flavor combinations, customization, portability, snackability and health.”

Wakefern’s ShopRite stores have offered sushi for more than 20 years and currently offers it—mostly made in-store—in nearly 200 locations.

ShopRite sushi chefs create made-to-order items and offer a variety of flavors and platter sizes, as well as premade sushi for quick convenience purchases. “The programs are designed for portability and are well-marked so customers can easily navigate the offering,” Wexler says.

While ShopRite’s sushi programs provide mainstays such as California rolls, nigiri and more, individual stores are empowered to know their customer base and preferences, and tailor offerings accordingly. “Our operators are true entrepreneurs that learn the preferences of their consumers and advise their sushi partners to modify their offerings to best meet the needs of their consumers,” he says.

As such, sushi is just one element of ShopRite’s programming, which also includes sashimi, poke, sushi burritos and sushi doughnuts. Many of Wakefern’s ShopRite members also offer complementary items to sushi, including ramen and Pan Asian grab-and-go meals, as well as hot bars and action stations, such as the Sizzling Wok.   

“Our evolution will continue as we expand into nontraditional sushi products, limited-time-offer flavors and products, bundling and possibly continuity programming,” says Wexler.

While new flavor creations and twists on the traditional are part of the culinary experience offered by ShopRite’s sushi program, it is clear that sushi is here to stay. “Sushi has become a destination category within our stores,” Wexler says.

“Great sushi is all about freshness, with beauty found in the simplicity from artisan sushi chefs. It epitomizes our true north.”  

The Beauty of Sushi

With its Snowfox Sushi program, JFE Franchising Inc. of Houston has seen sushi go from supermarket sideshow to center stage. “The past 15 years have really been a proving ground for sushi as a category,” says Paul Yi, new business development for JFE. “Now if a supermarket doesn’t offer fresh sushi, consumers are really missing it.”

Established in 2012, JFE is a leader in fresh, chef-prepared sushi kiosks at grocery retail. Today, it manages more than 700 locations in supermarkets and club stores across 29 states, including The Kroger Co., Sam’s Club, WinCo Foods, Supervalu and Costco.

costco sushi display case
Photograph courtesy of Snowfox/JFE Franchising

Through its Sushi Academy, JFE provides extensive training to teach franchisees the essentials of successfully operating its kiosks. JFE-trained sushi chefs have sold more than 1.1 billion sushi packages to date.

“The most important factor in selling sushi is seeing the sushi chef making it fresh,” says Yi. “It’s a show business.”

Sharon Witt, a former category manager for a major grocery store chain for which JFE is a vendor, concurs. “Sushi has become like Starbucks for supermarkets,” she says. “Mom comes in to pick up sushi with the kids, and we’ve got another generation of sushi fans.”

According to JFE, full-service sushi kiosks can sell more than $30,000 a week, surpassing in-store grocery coffee bar sales. JFE further finds that sushi rings garner as much as 75% higher sales per square foot than annual store averages, and account for as much as 25% of total deli sales.

“In the larger grocery stores we work with, fresh sushi can represent up to 1% of total store sales, minus fuel and pharmacy, and in smaller store formats it’s penetrated up to 3% of total store sales,” says Yi. Retail supermarket sushi sales have reached well over $1.5 billion in the past 12 months, he says.

In July, JFE’s Snowfox Sushi program opened in its first Costco location at a Warehouse in Kapolei, Hawaii. “It’s performing an average of $50,000 in weekly sales,” says Yi. “We are running Costco as a franchised location, and we anticipate many more fresh sushi locations to come.”

Snowfox Sushi top sellers are its New York Crunch Roll and California Roll, but its vegan Garden Wrap and Vegetarian Roll are also significant sellers.

“Consumers are looking to eat healthier, so vegetarian and vegan options are very important to the supermarket sushi business,” says Witt. Equally important is separating the vegetarian options from the raw fish options in the case, she says.

24/7 Sushi

As sushi becomes a staple for a growing number of shoppers, Charlotte, N.C.-based Hissho Sushi has responded with new initiatives and menu items designed to allow consumers to enjoy premium quality sushi more often.

“Our retail customers and shoppers are telling us that sushi is part of their everyday lives—they want to be able to enjoy it on the go, at home or whenever they crave it,” says Dan Beem, CEO of Hissho Sushi, the second-largest sushi franchise in the country.

“From our experience, shoppers want innovative, authentic flavors that are fresh, healthy and satisfying options,” says Breana Jones, Hissho marketing director. “They want more convenience and variety in prepared meals, and in particular, they want more sushi where they work, live and play.”

As part of its recent “Join the Sushi Revolution” rebranding, Hissho is making its products and sushi kitchens more visible. Hissho sushi chefs are poised to increase customer engagement in an effort to encourage greater trial of different items. 

Hissho is also elevating its technology to inform chefs and franchisees in real time about what items are selling, and what ingredients are in need of more frequent restocking. In September, Hissho launched three light, refreshing salads to complement its sushi rolls and complete family meals, including Zesty Cucumber Salad, Ginger Edamame Salad and Banzai Crab Salad.

For 2019, Hissho is looking to the trend in plant-based proteins and menu items that will enhance its vegetarian options, as well as new poke bowls.

“Poke is the next generation of sushi,” Jones says. “For sushi lovers, it’s a great new take on one of their favorite foods, and it gives them the options they want and need.”

Grocery and Drug Drive Sushi Sales

Identifying sushi as a “fast-growing opportunity in the deli section,” Nielsen finds that sushi has driven strong growth in both grocery (up 13%) and drugstores (up 20%), while convenience stores have experienced a 57% decline in sushi sales over the past year.

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