MENLO PARK, Calif. -- Taking a cue from the surge of sushi operations that have surfaced in supermarkets in recent years, Draeger's Supermarkets, based here, has begun offering an in-store, branded sushi-bar program at its newest location, in San Mateo, Calif., with the intention of expanding to other locations.
"It's a matter of space," said John Draeger, vice president of the three-store independent#. "Shoe-horning a new department into a store that's already very heavily merchandised is sometimes impossible. But this is a proven program for us; we do plan on expanding sushi."
The retailer teamed with Compton, Calif.-based Advanced Fresh Concepts Corp. to bring the live-action sushi station into its store. Founded in 1986, AFC specializes in supermarket sushi programs. It also operates in units of Publix Super Markets, Lakeland, Fla.; Randall's Food Markets, Houston; and Harris Teeter, Charlotte, N.C., among others. AFC currently operates more than 40 sushi bars in 70 supermarket chains throughout North America.
"AFC was the most professional operation of those investigated," said Draeger. "The product quality was excellent, the merchandising was excellent. We knew they could manage our needs."
AFC's marketing manager, Kevin Barton, explained that the company provides trained sushi chefs, as well as all the raw materials necessary to make the sushi. And having a sushi chef working in full view of the customers makes a big difference, according to Draeger.
"The department comes alive," he said. "The human element is so important. Customers can actually watch their food being made. It's a guarantee of freshness for them."
The station itself consists of a 6-foot, self-serve, refrigerated case that houses freshly made sushi, packaged to-go, with AFC labeling. Sushi chefs work at the sneeze-guard protected counter behind the case. Barton said staff varies depending on store volume. The station operates from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.
In a move designed to present sushi as a meal option, Draeger's has positioned its sushi bar between the deli and seafood departments. Barton said this is a common area for the station and that most participating retailers -- 85% to 90% -- will situate the combo case/work table in either the deli or fresh prepared-foods departments.
Draeger added that the location has opened the station up for impulse buying.
"The whole setup is intriguing," he noted. "People see the action and come over for a closer look. The impulse buy is definitely there."
He added that while these unplanned purchases are prominent, many customers come to the store specifically looking for the sushi. He said the operation takes phone orders daily, including special orders for parties.
Demand for sushi has risen over the last two to three years, especially on the East Coast, according to Barton. He said this trend, along with the desire for a healthier diet and lifestyle, started about 13 years ago in Los Angeles and has gradually moved East.
"People have been more exposed to sushi lately," Barton said. "They have become aware of its healthy qualities and tried it at local restaurants. They are generally quite excited to find they can buy the same products at their supermarket."
AFC also manufactures its own line of all-natural sushi-related products, such as green tea, reduced-sodium soy sauce, grated sushi wasabi and pickled ginger. Barton said that, unlike the fresh-sushi materials bought locally on a daily basis, these nonperishable goods are shipped to the stores from AFC's Los Angeles distribution facility.