Whole Foods Market will add a plant-based, raw tuna alternative to its fresh sushi bars in the New York City and Los Angeles markets next month.
Ahimi, the vegetarian and vegan-friendly sushi substitute, is tomato-based. It’s produced by NYC’s Ocean Hugger Foods.
The product consists only of non-GMO tomatoes, non-GMO and preservative-free soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil and filtered water.
Additional flavors can be layered on top.
Andy Sasser, senior category leader for prepared foods and bakery at Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods, found the product at the 2017 National Restaurant Association trade show.
“This was luck, honestly,” Sasser said, when asked if Whole Foods had been actively searching for a plant-based sushi option when it found Ocean Hugger.
“I happened to be attending the National Restaurant Association show in Chicago and I stumbled across the Ocean Hugger team demoing the product.”
Sasser described the product as “fairly mild, not tomato-y at all,” and said that he thinks the alternative will attract more than just vegetarian and vegan sushi shoppers.
That said, he does believe that a frequent sushi consumer will notice the differences between actual tuna and the tomato-based substitute. However, he doesn’t see that as a knock against Ahimi.
“It’s quite tasty though and really the look is fantastic,” said Sasser.
“We have a propriety process that we developed to eliminated the taste of the ingredient and build the texture of the fattiness of the fish,” Ocean Hugger CEO David Benzaquen said.
Like Sasser, Benzaquen sees the Ahimi product as more than just a sushi alternative for those who avoid meat and/or fish.
“The obvious market is vegetarians but it’s really so much broader than that,” he said.
Benzaquen believes that plant-based sushi can serve as an enticing standalone product.
He also pointed out that plant-based options provide an alternative to special niche customers such as pregnant women or children too young to safely eat the mercury often found in raw fish.
Benzaquen added that the company’s certified master chef and founder, James Corwell, invented the plant-based option while experimenting with tomatoes over a period of several years.
Corwell was inspired after visiting the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo where over 4 million pounds of tuna can be sold in a single day.
Doubting the sustainability of such high-volume fishing, Corwell sought out an alternative.
Ocean Hugger is currently developing eel and salmon substitutes as well. These newcomers to the lineup will be ready for market by the second half of 2018.
In addition to its Whole Foods debut, Ocean Hugger will also be appearing in the cafeterias of Google and Twitter headquarters this fall.
It can also be found in university settings throughout the United States and Canada, included in a meal at Fresh & Co or ordered in a poke bowl from plant-based meal delivery company Veestro.
Benzaquen said that while it is potentially in the cards, the product is not yet being sold directly to consumers.
However, should that change, he is confident that typical consumers who may be skittish about preparing raw fish without professional help may turn to plant-based alternatives to create sushi in their own kitchens.
Sasser said that its too early for Whole Foods to commit to potential plans to distribute the plant-based sushi on shelves but Ahimi will have a chance at earning placement in the sushi bars of additional markets depending on its performance this fall.
“Sushi is a growing category for us and rapidly becoming mainstream,” Sasser said.
Whole Foods currently has a presence in 42 states with more than 465 locations total throughout the U.S., the U.K. and Canada.