Americans love sushi. According to the website statisticbrain.com, the total annual sushi revenue in the US is $2.25 billion. But sushi has never quite taken off in the world of retail foodservice.
It’s definitely present, but just nine percent of retail deli executives are focusing on enhancing sushi this year, according to Statista. That ranked ahead of just two areas — category management and beverage bars. And according to instore’s exclusive research, detailed in this issue, just 25 percent of all retail foodservice consumers have purchased sushi from a supermarket.
What can retailers do to shuffle the deck? Trevor Corson knows a few things about sushi and has some ideas. Corson, the author of “The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice,” says fatigue may be setting in with sushi as we know it. With the food becoming ubiquitous across retail channels, what will keep consumers coming back for the same California Roll?
“The fact that sushi is trickling down to these c-store outlets means that it’s pretty well saturated already in the food culture,” Corson says. “It may be great now and people may be buying it now, but in terms of what can make it better, I would start thinking about what can I do to innovate the product so that it attracts more attention?”
The biggest change Corson says retailers can make is in the healthful aspects of sushi. While it has had a reputation as being a “healthier” food, consumers are beginning to think about that in a more complex way. White rice, for example, isn’t always thought of as a nutritionally beneficial food. And many Americanized sushi rolls are loaded with fattening sauces.
One way to counter that is to incorporate healthier grains and more fresh vegetables into the rolls. Corson says some sushi restaurants and even retailers like Whole Foods are beginning to do this, using ingredients like quinoa, purple rice, bright orange carrots and other healthy, eye-catching ingredients.
“I’ve started to see some outlets using quinoa mixed with brown rice,” he says. “And there are a lot of fresh vegetables out there that are really exciting and colorful; things that are new, look new, have new colors and are tapping into people’s interest in healthier vegetables and whole grains. That’s kind of new territory, I think. There are a few people innovating with this at the restaurant level. I feel like as people’s health consciousness is becoming more sophisticated, there might be an opportunity to innovate with this level of sushi.”
Consumers also take food safety into consideration when purchasing sushi, perhaps even more than when they are buying other foodservice products. Corson says he thinks those fears are overblown. “My feeling is, the distribution network for the ingredients that go into sushi is that it’s pretty good,” he says. “Sushi has become so completely ubiquitous that there is a high-quality distribution network in terms of safety and statistical risk. It’s at the same level as a box of salad greens or a jar of peanut butter.”
But when it comes to fish, he says supermarkets and c-stores could stand to consider higher-value sources, or even focusing on rolls that don’t necessarily need it.
“My personal feeling is that the vast majority of raw fish that is being made into mid-level or supermarket level sushi is not actually worth eating,” he says. “It’s not that it’s bad or unhealthy; it just doesn’t taste like much. It just doesn’t have much taste. Most of the time you’re tasting the chili mayonnaise, the soy sauce and the wasabi. People are becoming aware that a lot of the fish in mid-level sushi, the quality may be OK, but salmon farming has issues, and there are concerns about contaminants in the fish. They will respond to more options.”