Sushi without a skerrick of salmon poses a potential tough sell – what with only 5 per cent of us identifying as vegetarian. Vegans are a rarer breed still, but that hasn’t stopped Pepe Marshall and Guy Renner, the mum-and-son duo behind Superfood Sushi from setting out to satisfy plant-preferring tums, and showing the common carnivore there’s more to vegan cuisine than greens. “We got fed up of going out and the choices for us being limited to cucumber or avocado rolls… so boring and uncreative,” says Pepe, who thought: “We can do better than this.” So she and Guy opened Australia’s first vegan sushi restaurant in Sydney’s Newtown, a stones throw from Suzy Spoon’s Vegetarian Butcher. The location bodes well, but what else does it take to kick off a niche product? We plugged Pepe for answers…
What pushed you from just talking to actually launching a vegan sushi joint?
We started doing farmers markets and catering jobs and then increasingly customers were asking where our shop was so they could get some healthy sushi during the week. We then decided to run a crowd-funding campaign, which was actually to assist us in raising money so we could buy new equipment, but also to help us build a tribe and feel part of something meaningful.
What were you most fearful about?
That nobody would come, that we wouldn’t get it right, that they wouldn’t like our food… I guess all the normal doubts people go through, but we just got such great vibes so we punched through that fairly quickly. The underlying reason for making the choice to own a vegan restaurant is that we want to make a difference in our own small way, so we knew in our hearts that this was a good thing we were venturing into and that helped.
The biggest challenge you came up against?
Whilst we initially thought our customers would be mainly vegans and vegetarians, we have been surprised at the number of environmentally and health conscious customers we have, most of which are not vegetarian. This has caused us to re-think some of our marketing and create some more innovative products such as the sushi burger – a totally healthy, gluten-free burger that doesn’t look like a heart attack on a plate!
How did you spruik the idea of vegan sushi?
We don’t use the term ‘vegan’ so much as we find that can really polarise people and sometimes make meat eaters feel uncomfortable. We strive to be completely inclusive and want the food to speak for itself, and for people to enjoy it because it tastes good, rather than it being vegan. We make eating vegan food fun and creative
Did you target a niche or broader market?
Being vegan is niche by nature and that is what we always wanted to do. Having said that, there is such a huge worldwide interest in people eating less meat, whether it be for environmental, health or compassionate reasons, so our niche market may become more broad in time.
How was Superfood Sushi initially received?
Very favourably. Of course there are always naysayers who think they can’t possible eat something without meat in it, and we’ve even had people say that and leave. That’s okay, we appreciate that it’s not for everyone, but are so happy for those who have open hearts and minds and are willing to try something different.
What changes have you made since opening the doors?
If something isn’t working we change it quickly. We found that we initially tried to do too much, so we have adapted and made the menu simpler and changed it for the seasons, and also added more grab-and-go selections. Not everyone has time to sit down these days
How do you keep things profitable?
Being niche does mean that we don’t necessarily have as many customers as a standard sushi establishment, that’s simple math, so we need to make sure we have our costs under control as well as constantly keeping in contact with our customers through social [channels], especially Instagram, as our food is very visual.
Anything exciting in the pipeline?
We have just released our favourite mayo under the brand name of Mum and Son Providores and will be adding other products to the line in the next few months. We have also had enquiries from people all over Australia and even from the UK about opening up stores there, so we are actively looking for a partner to work with to assist us – our initial focus will be in Sydney for the next stage. We will appear on Shark Tank mid-June, so let’s see what comes of that!
What advice would you give someone launching a niche product?
We jumped and then built the plane on the way down a bit. Really do your research and understand your market, but be prepared that this market segment may be fickle and especially for food, you need to make sure you build the repeat customers. Be patient, respond to customer feedback and be prepared to work your butt off for very little monetary return at the start. But take enough time to have fun on the way.