Rise Of The Sushi King
By taking nigiri down-market, Ryuji Ishii's Advanced Fresh Concepts made raw fish an American fast food.
By Damon Darlin

(Business 2.0) – Advanced Fresh Concepts (AFC) sells more sushi than anyone else in America—nearly $250 million worth of its Southern Tsunami brand Nigiri and Makimono each year. That's 300 tons of fish, 20 million sheets of seaweed, and 1.9 million pounds of rice. The Rancho Dominguez, Calif., company operates sushi stands in supermarkets from Alaska to Alabama, relying largely on franchisees. AFC's California rolls—which account for half the company's sales—win newspaper taste tests despite costing less than $5. "I can keep quality high because volume keeps costs down," says founder Ryuji Ishii. Here's how he turned raw fish into a U.S. supermarket staple. — Damon Darlin

AFC's Menu for Success

1985 Idea Inari Deli counters at U.S. supermarkets remind accountant Ryuji Ishii—a recent immigrant from Japan—of food stands at Japanese department stores. The only difference: No cheap sushi in America.

1986 Test Market Tuna Insisting his company can maintain freshness while avoiding food-poisoning lawsuits, Ishii talks a Vons in Los Angeles into a six-month trial, renewable if no health problems arise. Trouble is, Ishii doesn't have a company.

1987 Demographic Roll Ishii delivers, and no one gets sick. Backed by a bank loan, he opens counters in markets with affluent clientele. "Sushi was just for yuppies back then," he recalls.

2002 Franchise Temaki With 1,400 stands, AFC switches to a franchise system. Ishii relies on fellow immigrants, who pay $2,400 for an outlet and a week of training. (Never mind that Japanese sushi chefs apprentice for years.) Top franchisees gross $20,000 a week.

2003 Innovation Inside-Out For those Americans who still think seaweed is gross, AFC releases its "summer roll," with a rice-paper wrapper. A low-carb teriyaki-chicken roll is designed for the age of Atkins.

2004 Expansion Ebi Some 1,700 groceries serve AFC sushi (under its Southern Tsunami brand). Ishii exhausts demographically desirable supermarkets and expands to colleges, stadiums, and amusement parks, opening more than 50 stands a month.