Although sushi is one of the largest foodservice categories in Japan – second only to udon – channel sales and restaurant numbers have been slipping for some time. Historically many sushi-ya were small eateries often found in narrow alleys, typically poorly signposted, manned by a small team, and lead by a chef whose only life vocation was fish.
Like many other sectors in Japan, the sushi industry hasn’t been immune from change, the recent census showed a 20% drop in the number of small sushi restaurants just in the last 5 years.
Finding and training staff to run a traditional sushi restaurant isn’t easy. The hours are long and the whole industry is regimented by traditions and mores that dictate apprentices spend their formative years washing dishes, slicing vegetables and other tasks before progressing to selecting and slicing fish never mind interfacing with customers.
It’s also an industry where gender equality is unheard of. How many female sushi chefs have you seen?
There are signs of change. Some sushi academies are experimenting with crash courses to fast track promising chefs who otherwise would have baulked at the traditional 10 year training regimen. However most change is focused on technical skills and much less on product development, marketing or business management.
The competitive landscape hasn’t stood still. Today in Japan there are an increasing number of large sushi chains like Hamma, Sushiro, Kura and Kappa, all of whom have over 350 stores each. Purists may argue that a “Kaiten” (revolving) sushi restaurant isn’t in the same category as a small independent, but diners are voting with their feet and increasingly frequenting these outlets.
A familiar echo to the demise of corner shops to big box retailers?
Kaiten sushi are a big business. Sushiro is currently a takeover play between tussling private equity teams with an asking price rumoured to exceed $1.5b.
The success of the kaiten sushi isn’t just due to their critical mass, economies of scale and everyday pricing. They’re also actively promoting the category.
Their marketing doesn’t just stop with TVCs. Sushiro has taken a leaf out of 7-Eleven’s playbook and actively mines its customer transaction data to gain insights on diner profiles, popular dishes, spend and visitor frequency.
A far cry from the traditional sushi restaurant where in many cases there are no itemised bills, simply a handwritten total.
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