America’s love for Sushi, Sashimi, and Nigiri has adopted the artistic creativity that makes eating sushi a delicacy and experience. There are countless combinations of fish, rice, seaweed, vegetables, and condiments, creating explosions of flavor. Whatever your combination of choice, they’re all quite delicious. Sushi, in every sense of the word, is a delicacy, handcrafted by master chefs.
Why is sushi so expensive? It takes talent, time, training and high-end ingredients to appropriately build each hand made sushi roll.
Sushi in America
Sushi has what the Japanese would call Otaku – a term for people with obsessive interests. People will travel hours or plan vacations around the globe for the best sushi, or to watch the best Itamae or Master Sushi Chef work their magic.
It’s believed sushi first arrived in the United States sometime in the 1950s to cater to Japanese businessmen in California. The first major influx for the popularity of sushi in America was with the Kawafuku Restaurant (Pictured below) in LA’s Little Tokyo in 1966 with Itamae Shigeo Saito. About a decade later, at the Tokyo Kai Kan restaurant, also in LA’s Little Tokyo, the Americanized California Roll was invented.
Tuna style maki rolls were seasonal due to the ability to get fresh tuna. At Tokyo Kai Kan, crab and avocado were subbed out for tuna and a seasonal roll was introduced as an American sushi specialty. Other pioneers to Americanizing sushi have paved the way, such as Nobu Matsuhisa, known for his unique and obscure flavor blends that make perfect sense once they hit your tongue.
As sushi gained popularity and spread across the United States, the flavor palettes expanded just as much, if not even more than the geographical reach.
Selecting the Right Ingredients
With so many varieties of sushi rolls and ingredients, it can become a nightmare to plan the right amount of fish for a sushi restaurant to plan to their anticipated sales. When sushi grew in popularity, the combinations expanded tremendously from their traditional roots, incorporating variations in vegetables, condiments, and even fruit. What never changed, was the high-quality ingredients.
You can get fish such as tuna, salmon, mackerel, grouper, flounder… the list can go on and on. In addition to other seafood such as eel, shrimp, squid, sea urchin, crab, lobster, scallops, roe, and even sea cucumber. You have your choice of condiments ranging from traditional wasabi and soy sauce, to yum yum sauce, sweet eel sauce, and spicy sriracha mayonnaise. Whatever your combination, it’s wrapped in a sheet of nori and surrounded by rice.
Costs for the Business and Consumer
Sushi fish is different than the fish you get at your local fish fry, it’s high quality, and either fresh or frozen fresh. Sushi grade Tuna ranges from $12/lb upwards of $200/lb depending on the season, demand and the scarcity tuna is experiencing as some species linger on the brink of extinction, such as the Bluefin Tuna. As tuna is over-hunted, we have seen the size of the fish decrease over the years, making it more and more rare to find larger mature fish.
Recent headlines were made as Kiyosh Kimura of the Japanese Kiyomura Corp paid over $3M USD for a 612 pound Bluefin Tuna, coming in at over $5,000 per pound. Kimura purchased the fish for his Sushi Zanmai restaurant chain, with an anticipated 12,000 pieces of tuna from his purchase. That’s a whopping $250 per piece or roughly $306 per ounce of just the meat, not including other ingredients, labor, and overhead.
Outside of Kimura’s outrageous purchase, you can get ‘normal’ sushi for around $15 a roll, or $1.88 per piece, or a simple option like a California roll for $7 or $0.88 per piece. Going to a restaurant, you may order 2-3 rolls, get your ginger salad, miso soup, and possibly some edamame to much on.
Add in a drink or two for you and your date, you’re looking at a $150 night plus tip. Good Sushi is not cheap, good fish is not cheap, and good fish doesn’t last long. When you buy sushi, you’re buying the ingredients, but you’re also buying the skill that goes into it.
Sushi: A Labor of Love
A Master Itamae can take anywhere from 5-20 years of apprenticeship. Read that again. Twenty years. A sushi chef apprenticeship is five years, but master Itamae is twenty. When you go to a high-end sushi restaurant, you’re paying for a delicious perfection. Each roll is hand-layered, hand-rolled, hand-cut and placed out on display before making it to your table. An Itamae in training is tasked with cooking the rice.
The rice is cooked to perfection, but not before being rinsed and soaked to remove excess starch. To truly make it sushi rice, a mixture of rice vinegar, sugar, and salt is made and mixed into the warm rice and allowed to cool. Each roll, or piece of sashimi is hand-molded, each slice of fish is carefully filleted along the grain with a nicely sharpened knife to assure the fish meat is cut, not torn.
An Expensive Craft
The most common knives used in sushi preparation range from a $110 Masahiro to a $1,050 Saki Takayuki, and many that reach even higher prices. If you’re going to make sushi at home, you can use a finely sharpened santoku.
An Itamae makes upwards of $70,000 per year. At most sushi restaurants, you can sit at the sushi bar and watch your Itamae work his magic, sometimes with several other Itamae or apprentices by his side. Your server, the bartender, and hostess are all catering to your dining desires and leading up to the delectable finale.
Let’s dive deep into an LA’s Little Tokyo sushi bar. Rent goes for about $56 per square foot per month in the busy areas but averages out around $25 per square foot in Little Tokyo. Assuming a 2,500 square foot restaurant, that’s $62,500 in monthly rent.
This restaurant is a busy one and has 3 Itamae at an average salary of $80,000 per year. In the tables, I’ve broken down the price of labor, rent, and ingredients.
Sushi Ingredients Costs Per Roll
Ingredients alone, each roll costs $4.63, adding in the fixed costs (labor & rent/utilities), assuming each roll goes for an average of $12 each, it would take 12,829 rolls to break even each month.
|Item||Unit Cost||Cost Per Roll|
|Soy Sauce||$3.00 6oz||.50|
|Nori||$9.00 12 Sheets||.75|
A busy restaurant on Thursday, Friday and Saturday night can typically experience 320 people in and out at the 2,500 square foot range, selling around 640 rolls. Four weekends a month, that rate sells 7,680 rolls in a month. Add in lunch on Saturday and Sunday, they could achieve their 12,829 sales needed to break even. Throw in drinks, appetizers, teriyaki style sides and desserts, a sushi restaurant has the potential to be profitable if they plan their food correctly.
Sushi Restaurant Monthly Costs And Break-Even Point: $12 Per Roll
|Variable Cost Per Unit||$4.63|
|BREAK EVEN POINT||12,829 (Rolls)|
Ordering too much fish and having a bad sales week could mean lower sales and increased waste. Any restaurant takes meticulous planning and sales forecasting to get it right.
Break-Even Point: $15 Per Roll
In the next table, I have increased the average roll price to $15, and it has decreased the required sales to 9,118, a more achievable number from month to month. People will still pay $15 for a high-quality roll at a restaurant with a good atmosphere and great service.
|Variable Cost Per Unit||$4.63|
|BREAK EVEN POINT||9,118 (Rolls)|
Making sushi at Home
If you’re ok skipping the experience, you can make sushi at home too. Start with some of the key tools: a good sharp Santoku knife ($20-$45), a bamboo rolling mat ($6), a wooden rice paddle ($4-$10) and a wooden or plastic bowl for your rice. Plastic or wood rice bowl and rice paddle are important pieces here. Metal utensils will damage the rice, and a metal bowl will potentially react with the rice vinegar and alter the taste.
When making your rice, rinse it under cold water in a strainer until the water coming off is no longer cloudy. Cook the rice in a rice cooker or on low heat on the stove with 1 cup rice to 1.2 cups of water, assuring the rice stay sticky and doesn’t turn to mush. Move the rice to a wooden or plastic bowl to cool.
While it’s cooling, mix 1/2 cup rice vinegar in a small pan over low heat with 2 tablespoons sugar and 2 teaspoons salt until dissolved. Mix it into the rice and allow it to continue to cool. Do not put it in the fridge to cool, but you could always run a fan to help speed it up.
Depending on your choice of ingredients: slice your avocado, shrimp, cucumber, and fish into long thin strips. Make sure your strips are small enough that when held together they are no more than as round as a quarter combined. Once sliced, you can set it all aside. Set up your rolling station with your bamboo mat and nori.
I prefer to place plastic wrap over my bamboo, but that is optional, as long as you keep your bamboo roller dry it’ll work just fine without the plastic wrap.
Over the bamboo, you can choose to do rice or nori on the outside. Make sure your layer of rice is nice and thin, much more thin that seems normal, otherwise it will become a thick roll very quickly. Layer in your fish, vegetables and preferred ingredients including condiments if desired. Starting with one side, slowly and tightly roll your sushi, stopping every half roll to gently squeeze the roll for firmly compacted rice. Be careful not to squeeze too hard or your nori might ‘pop’. Literally, pop, and you’ll have rice smooshing out the sides.
When you have a successful roll, you may have to wet the end of the nori to get it to stick together and make that final seal. Allow your sushi to sit for a minute or two before cutting. Ensure your knife is sharp or it will dent your roll and rip your nori instead of cutting it smoothly.
It will take some time and practice. It might not look pretty, but you should get all the flavors you love at a fraction of the cost.
Talent, Skill, and Art Increase Prices
When you eat out, it’s more than just getting food, it’s buying an experience. This is part of the excitement of eating at a restaurant, whether its sushi, hibachi, a steakhouse, Italian, Indian, Thai, American. We expect what we get at a restaurant to be presented differently than what we make at home. Often, we go to restaurants to not only escape having to cook but to get something we don’t normally make at home. There’s a premium to eating out, the service, food, and expertise of the chefs and staff.
When it comes to sushi, you’re experiencing a finely curated blend of flavors and the expertise of an Itamae who may have been rolling sushi for 35 years. You’re paying for his experience before your meal, as well as the experience of your meal that night. High-end ingredients, skill, and a flavor unlike anything else.