PHILADELPHIA — Sushi restaurants and takeout shops long ago became fixtures in large U.S. cities, but many Americans still view sushi as an exotic, unfamiliar food. This year, Genji Sushi, which operates sushi stations in 137 Whole Foods  locations throughout the U.S., has been changing that perception by leveraging Facebook.
The social networking site has been ideal for getting their fans talking with one another, according to Genji's Marketing Director Ken Blakeman.
“We want sushi to become well accepted in America; we want to demystify it,” he said. “It's not an obscure, exotic food that you have to go to Timbuktu to really enjoy. You can actually enjoy it in your everyday life.
“Facebook is a perfect medium for that. It's meeting people where they are, and it's also about helping people learn from each other — putting people together and having them teach other. So it's not [our] company saying, ‘We're going to teach you about sushi.’ We actually have a lot of great, passionate people, who really love sushi, and they're talking to each other.”
Whole Foods has long said that college education levels are one of the top demographic criteria the company uses when selecting new store locations. And, Blakeman noted that these areas also tend to have people who have traveled more than average, and as a result have often been exposed to a wide variety of foods. So, many of Genji's customers are already very familiar with sushi, before they even walk up to the counter.
But, there are regional preferences throughout the chain. In some locations, shrimp is more popular, because it is cooked. Raw items are less so. In other locations, vegetarian items are very popular, for example. Regardless, the goal of the Facebook campaign remains the same — getting customers to try new things.
“Our goal is to get people to try the variety,” Blakeman said.
In Facebook interactions, Genji's fans often advise newbies. They might encourage someone new to sushi to start simple — with a California Roll made from cucumber, avocado and cooked crab meat, for example — and then get more adventurous. Or, parents will exchange advice on which items their kids enjoy. Tactics such as a recent haiku contest help Genji encourage conversation among fans without being obtrusive.
The site has also proven helpful for integrated marketing campaigns, which help draw traffic to their Whole Foods' sushi counters, while boosting online participation and encouraging trial of new products.
For example, to promote their new line of Tiki Snackers specialty wraps, Genji held its Sushi in Paradise sweepstakes. From July 6 through Aug. 16, customers who tried one of the three wraps — filled with spicy popcorn shrimp, roast beef and wasabi, or roasted vegetables — could enter to win a free trip to Hawaii. Fans could learn about the promo on Facebook and head to Whole Foods, or see the signage in-store and head to Genji's site to register.
“We have promotions going on all the time, and new products launched all the time,” Blakeman said, adding that in some areas where it is most popular, sushi is now viewed almost as a commodity. So, it is vital to continue to innovate, and keep customers coming back to see what is new.
To that end, Genji just announced the hiring of Takao Iinuma as their new corporate executive chef. Iinuma has worked extensively with celebrity Chef Masaharu Morimoto, serving as executive chef and corporate chef at Morimoto locations in Washington D.C., Philadelphia and Mumbai, India.
One of Iinuma's goals, Blakeman said, will be to continue experimenting with new sushi combinations and menu ideas.