Grupo Alimentaria (GA) was founded in 1987 by Alberto Romano to serve the burgeoning Japanese gastronomic market in Mexico. As a former government employee of the Mexican Fishing Secretariat, Romano tapped into his expertise on the fish import industry to pioneer one of the largest restaurant empires in the country. As GA CEO Ernesto Silva explains, not only was Romano a master entrepreneur, he was also an avid fan of Japanese cuisine: “After his political stint, Romano switched gears and used his know-how to start a fish import enterprise that exclusively served Japanese restaurants in Mexico. He was a connoisseur, a great fan of Japanese food.” The resulting company was dubbed Interpez and focused on importing tuna, salmon, and other traditional sushi fish to Mexican providers.
Not surprisingly, Romano ventured into the restaurant industry not long after the inception of Interpez, founding the first Sushi Itto location in Mexico City in 1988. “The first restaurant had 18 chairs and allowed significant interaction between the chef and the clients,” notes Silva. “Patrons would request specific ingredients in their sushi and helped us design the menu for which we are known today.” In 1994, Interpez and Sushi Itto both became part of GA, forming a synergic relationship that still stands today. Initially comprised of commercial and supply divisions, today Interpez is split into two sectors. Sushi Palmas manages the commercialization and distribution of GA products, while Sushi Pacific handles the import and supply of raw goods for the manufacture of those products. All in all, the company features a payroll of 700 employees and a client roster that includes prestigious Mexican establishments such as the Presidente, Súntori, Camino Real, and RIU hotels, as well as retail industry giants such as Walmart and Costco.
In addition to 105 restaurants in Mexico and numerous others around the globe, GA operates a food processing plant in Mexico City that covers 200 square meters. The plant features state-of-the-art technology that allows the preservation of freshness and the efficient distribution of its packaged goods. This focus on quality earned GA the H distinctive – a recognition given by the Mexico Ministry of Tourism for appropriate hygiene and quality food handling – as well as certification under the HACCP, a systematic preventative approach to food safety that addresses physical, chemical, and biological hazards as a means of prevention. Furthermore, products are individually frozen via I.Q.F. freezing technology, increasing product shelf life and viability. The plant’s monthly production capacity is 500 tons.
GA is in the process of building a larger facility expanding over 600 square meters, which is set to start operations within a year. Along with new mixing and packaging technology, the facility will include a fast freezing tunnel that will further increase shelf life and facilitate the export of products to the U.S. and Central America.
GA would not exist today if not for the growing demand for exotic cuisines within the Mexican populace. As late as the 1980s, the Latin American country had been closed off to major foreign influences in terms of cuisine, making traditional Mexican food the only viable choice for would-be restaurateurs. But as the 1990s progressed, so did the market for foreign gastronomy. Explains Silva: “Today the market has opened up completely. We have Greek, Indian, and Japanese food where before there was only traditional Mexican food. Everything has been spearheaded by today’s youth and the fusion of ingredients, which adapts the flavors from other cultures to better serve the Mexican palate.”
Initially, this gastronomical boom was satisfied by U.S. imports, but as the Mexican consumer became more discerning, the industry focused on developing flavors that had greater appeal to the Mexican palate. The approach adopted by GA featured the inclusion of traditional Mexican ingredients in Sushi Itto’s menu. “We are in essence a Japanese restaurant chain which has ‘tropicalized’ Mexican food,” explains Silva. “Our menu includes offerings that feature the fusion of concepts as they include ingredients such as cream cheese, peppers, avocado, and Mexicaninspired sauces.”
As much as the boom in demand dictated GA’s history, a great part of GA’s success is due to its founder’s great vision and business acumen. “Alberto saw the great demand for his restaurants and, unable to meet that demand himself due to capital limits, he decided to franchise the brand. At that time, in 1990, the franchise concept was hardly a household term in Mexico.” During the next two decades, the Sushi Itto franchise has expanded to 105 locations in Mexico, out of which it fully operates 16. Additionally, GA features restaurants in the U.S., Spain, and Central America.
Although the main priority of GA’s commercialization and supply divisions is to provide for the company’s restaurant chain, a large part of the enterprise’s output is earmarked to serve retailers and other Japanese restaurants. In fact, 40 percent of GA’s output goes to supply retailers such as Wal Mart and Costco and 20 percent supplies other Japanese restaurants around the country. Without a doubt the market with most growth potential is that of premade products aimed at major retailers. These include sauces, seasonings, dips, and snacks, many of which merge Mexican ingredients with traditional Japanese flavors. “As we were already leaders in the Japanese cuisine business,” notes Silva, “we made a conscious effort to place our focus on products that were sold in grocery store shelves and other retailers.”
Two of GA’s best premade sellers are the Itto sauce – a mix of Surime (also known as imitation crab), mayonnaise, pepper, and onions initially used in the Sushi Itto restaurants – and its chipotle sauce, recently popularized in the shelves of major retailers. Additionally, GA’s premade product line features a series of salads, smoked tunas, salmon, and cream cheese dips. The company is also in the process of launching a new line dubbed “ALAMAR,” which includes shrimp cocktails and the traditionally Mexican “Return to Life” (Vuelve a la Vida) cocktail, featuring octopus, oysters, and shrimp.
A great advantage of running a state-of-the-art food processing plant is the ability to cater products to specific target markets. For example, the company is able to provide Costco, one of GA’s largest clients, custom-made sushi rice that only needs to be reheated in a microwave oven. This obviates the need for gas stoves, which are not permitted by Costco’s store policies. For Sushi Itto restaurants, GA’s supply and commercialization branches are able to customize their product offerings even more. “For the Sushi Itto franchises,” notes Silva, “we distribute everything from specialized fish such as hibachi and yellowtail to store stationery. Thus we are able to provide a full service to each of the restaurants.”
FULL STEAM AHEAD
Due to double-digit growth the past three years, GA’s annual billings have jumped to $50 million, with the company’s commercialization division – Sushi Palmas – accounting for 70 percent of the total revenue. For the most part, this growth can be attributed to the company’s incursion into the premade foods industry, which should also spearhead GA’s growth in the upcoming years. “There is greater opportunity to substitute imports with our own products than ever before,” notes Silva. “We are seeing that the Mexican populace is growing more dissatisfied with American imports not because of their costs, as ironically the weakness of the dollar has provided us with reasonably priced products, but with the fact that the flavors are not taking the Mexican palate into account. We see an opening in the market and believe we can fill this niche in the premade foods market.” In addition, GA is seeking to export its main premade brands to the U.S. and Central America.
Lastly, although the restaurant division is growing at a slower pace, Silva believes it still constitutes an important part of GA’s business plan. Notes Silva: “In regards to Sushi Itto, we still have many regions in Mexico where we lack presence. We’ve opened franchises in places such as Rochester in the U.S., but we are also exploring opportunities in Miami, Texas, and Seattle where we are seeing a great interest in our product.” Taking into account both Sushi Itto’s and Sushi Palmas’ expansion plans, Silva forecasts a 12 percent growth rate for GA for the next three years.