The past half year has seen a surprising change in Itsu’s food sales. For the first time in the chain’s history, there have been months where purchases of its hot meals have surpassed its sushi offering.
“Our hot food range as a whole is selling so much,” says Jemima Ferguson, group brand and marketing director.
While the chicken teriyaki rice bowl is currently the best-selling hot item, Itsu is hoping some of its new menu additions can give it a run for its money. The grab-and-go favourite added hoisin duck bao buns at the end of March.
In fact, the bao proved such an exciting area of experimentation that, just a few weeks after the launch of the duck options, Itsu began trialling other iterations of the steamed bun. Commuters can now get their hands on a bun topped with a poached egg, spinach, miso hollandaise and various toppers from five stores in travel hubs and airports.
“It’s a bit of a leap for people who are potentially going to get a croissant!” admits Ferguson, which is why Itsu is approaching its breakfast expansion gradually, having been unsuccessful previously at leaping into the morning sector.
“Probably in the past we haven’t had quite the right range at the right price, and that’s about to change, so it will be very interesting to see what happens,” she muses. “[Breakfast is] a big habit to change and try and establish, and people don’t necessarily associate Itsu and sushi with breakfast.”
The daypart will nevertheless play an important role in future expansion plans, as the brand looks at opening stores in more airports and train stations, both in the UK and on the continent.
Ferguson admits that Itsu has an often-cautious approach to bringing new ingredients into the supply chain, aiming to maintain harmony and simplicity in the operation.Before taking the plunge on a fresh item, the operator will normally trial it as a seasonal soup or as part of a bento of the month first.
The preferred method for menu development is to take options that are doing well and explore how they can be incorporated further into the offering. For example, Itsu has seen stellar sales around its gyoza, which has prompted the culinary team to look at different fillings and applications, such as bathing gyoza in a broth.
This approach recently proved popular with the Winter Wonton and Greens soup, a limited-time meal of vegetable gyozas, brown rice, seasonal veg and seaweed designed to capitalise on Veganuary.
“It just went down a storm,” notes Ferguson, who says that it got the team thinking in more detail about how they might incorporate the soup’s kombu (kelp) constituent into other dishes.
“Often when we find an ingredient we love, we will try and find other ways to use that so it can justify its place on the menu,” continues Ferguson. “For instance, in May, we’ve got a shiso salmon dragon roll coming up. The shiso is just this beautiful lovely Japanese herb, bright purple, so we’re trying to think up other uses for that.”
Miso and teriyaki are also on the NPD hit list, and we can expect to see wasabi mayo (though without too much of a kick) making an appearance this summer too. The team are keeping an eye on Korean flavours like gochujang as well, though previous trials with kimchee, for instance, have shown these aren’t as much of a crowd pleaser as Japanese-inspired foods.
While the Itsu team normally plan their monthly bento boxes about six months ahead, they can be fairly agile when necessary. The development around the hoisin duck bao took around three to four months, while the breakfast bao took even less time.
“We like to keep freshness, give our customers something new to try, our team something new to make, give us something to talk about,” says Ferguson. “It allows us the space to play, play with new ingredients, new techniques, new styles.”
A healthy price
Itsu remains dedicated to its slogan to “eat beautiful,” highlighting the healthiness of its menu, which has a considerable number of vegetarian and vegan options.
“We do feel we are quite unique in the transparency of our nutritional benefits – we publish our calories, for instance, very openly and visibly throughout the menu,” explains Ferguson, who is also reviewing how the information is communicated to consumers, as “it can get a bit scientific and baffling.”
“Is 0.5mg of magnesium necessarily what people need to know? Or is it more about portions of veg and general goodness of what you’re putting in?” she adds.
Price point has also always been key to Itsu’s proposition. Something as simple as offering a medium box of sushi helped boost sales because a number of visitors didn’t want to splash out on a big box.
To that end, sharing boxes have been introduced to be “intentionally broadening,” giving consumers the option to make their Itsu meal a communal experience.
“They do sell very well on delivery,” according to Ferguson, who says that while only one option is now available in store, there has been some interest from individual locations in including all three options that are sold via delivery.
Roll up, roll up!