Are we seeing a sushi revolution?
Last year in November Sushi Gourmet was crowned the 2017 Gold Product Winner at the Quality Food Awards; we spoke to Jason Danciger, managing director of the Hana Group UK, the company behind the incredible overall winner
Hana Group operate internationally and offer fresh, handmade sushi through a number of different brand names. Its Sushi Gourmet brand has exclusive concessions in Sainsbury’s stores offering fresh sushi handmade daily in-store and others.
How did the concept begin?
Interestingly enough sushi is simply huge in America and most retailers have sushi in one form or another being made fresh in front of customers. It is not a product that likes being made in a factory and being chilled for days. It just doesn’t really work and it comes out hard and like bullets! In America they’ve been doing this for a while and somehow it missed the UK and went to France and to Europe.
It’s very big in Europe and most countries; France, Belgium, Portugal, Spain and Italy have had fresh handmade sushi for a few years now. The UK was behind what was really a growing global phenomenon.
The second element is that Japanese food has been in triple digit growth and has already overtaken French food.
I’ve spent most of my career in European or French food and it is amazing to see that France has been totally eclipsed by the growth in Japanese food. The concept there was started by two entrepreneurs Jaques & Laurent who had a Japanese restaurant and began by selling their sushi to a local supermarket. Over there supermarkets have a lot of autonomy; there isn’t the same central buying structure we have in UK. So they sold into their second supermarket and they carried on that way and, four years later, they had a couple of hundred sites. Then they acquired the Genji brand from the States and increased to 400 sites overnight – 600 globally.
When did you get involved?
I started 18 months ago working on the initial piece, developing the business, recipes, food, teams, training, set up & installation and we’ve had enjoyed really good growth. We started with 10 sites and grew from there and now operate over fifty whilst continuing to expand.
Is the deal with Sainsbury’s exclusive?
We won the business through passing a number of tough tests and whilst we have an exclusive deal with them for the Sushi Gourmet brand, we have other brands as well and we’re growing working with Whole Foods, Baxster Story, Auchan, Monoprix, Carrefour and others.
We have planned expansion into retail spaces and we have partners across the world. We’ve quadrupled in the year.
Tell us about your ingredients, since this is such an important element in good sushi.
We buy as much local produce as we possibly can. The less it travels, the better it is. Obviously certain ingredients – for example ripe avocados – we can’t grown in this country, but everything else is grown and sourced diligently as locally as possible.
There’s a huge skill in buying fish; you can’t just buy a piece of salmon and cut it up for sushi or sashimi. We use round hooks when fishing so that it doesn’t catch turtles and we use a long line so that it doesn’t drag up the sea bed.
Tuna specifically is super-frozen to minus 60 degrees in nanoseconds. You can take a fish and superfreeze it and when you defrost it, it starts flapping because its nerves are still intact. That’s how fresh it is is.
We buy sashimi grade fish that is certified as being from good waters. Even the farm fish we buy is certified as higher welfare by RSPCA so that there are not too many together fighting for space. The water is fresh and we use pure, natural feed. There is lots of care taken on that salmon because a really good quality product is absolutely key.
Is there a specific demographic that is driving this huge demand for your product?
It isn’t just young health-conscious females; there’s a broad range of people. When I’ve engaged with customers, you are as likely to have folks come in with high vis jackets and big boots who would normally have a curry of a night choosing sushi to keep the figure trim. The youth market is huge for this as a trend – I think because it is simple and easy to enjoy.
Since everything is made fresh and locally, how do you get sufficiently trained staff?
We opened our own university! We have a unit at Leadenhall Market and we train our staff at our University of Sushi there. The products the students make are for sale and they get all their training there. It isn’t a business that’s easy. From procurement to techniques for cutting salmon takes a huge amount of skill and we train our own people for six weeks before they are allowed to work at one of our sites. They learn knife skills and health & safety rules, but they also learn how to season, how to taste rice and how to handroll sushi.
We will recruit anyone from any background. We look for people with a strong work ethic, team work and togetherness. At the speed we’re opening, we’re hiring more than 10 people every single week.
What did you think of your Quality Food Award Gold Q win?
There were two elements to our win. Winning the Food To Go category, well, having been in this industry for 35 years, I was confident that we would get somewhere in that category. We are the only ones rolling by hand; a lot of sushi producers use machines and it squeezes the rice and makes it hard. We’ve done so much product development on it and done blind tastings and I was confident of the quality of the product.
However, to win the overall Q award, that was a huge, welcome surprise. For such a niche product to win such broad appeal was sensational. We all worked so hard last year and to get that after only our first year of trading was a huge uplift to everyone in our business.