By Emily Kemme
Sushi restaurants have a mysterious sanctity about them. Often hushed and dimly lit, these artistic spaces accented with bamboo plants, ornamental lotus, and lots of zen vibes have the inspirational serenity of a temple. It’s a place that can be intimidating if you aren’t well-versed in the taste language of sushi. And even if you’re comfortable consuming fresh raw fish and sushi rolls, given its high price point, this Japanese delicacy might not be an everyday experience.
Part of the mystery lies in the preparation. Sushi chefs are artisans, typically with years of training to climb the sushi chef ladder. As an art, the sushi chef seeks perfection. The fish must be sliced just so, and sourced from reliable vendors, a critical element of high quality sushi lies in the relationships built around it. A sushi chef handles fish with bare hands, the better to impart a touch of human warmth designed to release the fish’s flavor. The vinegared rice upon which a slice of nigiri-zushi perches also plays a part. Each rice grain should remain distinct, and served at room temperature, these light and healthy morsels highlight a chef’s skill.
So when it comes to grocery store sushi, the general expectation — slices of chilled raw fish atop clumps of white rice, or mayonnaise lacquered vanity rolls stuffed with fish, crabmeat, and a bright tangle of vegetables layered in plastic boxes lined with fake grass — doesn’t seem to fall within these lofty parameters.
And that’s where Snowfox sushi steps in, filling both an educational and culinary void in Americans’ sushi consumption. Managing over 845 full-service sushi bars in everyday locations like neighborhood grocery stores and universities, the Houston-based company’s goal is to feature the show business element of this Japanese favorite in the most mundane of places. Since 2005, Snowfox has sold more than 1.1 billion sushi packages to hungry shoppers.
You’ve probably seen grocery store sushi kiosks tucked into a corner of grocery superstores. They’ve been a burgeoning feature of the deli department landscape ever since the late 1980s. With grocers wanting to expand their prepared food options to attract more in-store shoppers, adding pre-packaged sushi to the pizza-salad-barbecued chicken line-up seemed a natural choice. Sushi’s popularity has grown steadily with American eaters who, as they become more comfortable with the concept as a healthy food choice, look for quick grab-and-go options at various levels. At the King Soopers in West Greeley, 6922 West 10th Street, a Snowfox sushi bar sits adjacent to steam trays of fried, baked, and barbecued chicken. Offering grab-and-go plastic boxes brimming with low calorie, freshly made sushi rolls, nigiri, dumplings, poke bowls, and spring rolls, these raw and cooked products are at shoppers’ fingertips.
Snowfox offers franchises for sushi entrepreneurs, along with a two week training course at its Houston headquarters. After passing a food licensing examination, franchise investors are granted a certificate.
Ca Tial worked at King Soopers’ Snowfox kiosks for three years in Denver. Before that, she spent several years rolling sushi at Sprouts Farmers Market under the Hisu brand. In October 2020, Tial purchased a Snowfox sushi franchise for the west Greeley store. “Snowfox is nice, they have a good menu plan and high quality supplies,” Tial said.
Tial and her husband, Lian, order fresh seafood from Seattle Fish Co., a well-known Rocky Mountain seafood supplier in business since 1918. Seattle Fish performs temperature checks before allowing delivery — the cold case must hold at below 41 degrees Fahrenheit in order to sell products.
Along with her husband, Ca’s brother Van Lian works at the kiosk. All refugees from Myanmar, Van has lived in the United States for seven years. He has been training on the job for five years, working in grocery store sushi franchises, following a similar track as has his sister.
Lian said the West Greeley King Soopers Snowfox orders about 4 pounds of fresh salmon and tuna fillets each weekly. That translates to roughly 3 large salmon fillets, and the same for tuna. Sushi is prepared daily, with raw fish products made for day of sale and discarded the same day if left unsold. Other ingredients are replaced on a rolling basis: cooked fish such as crab sticks will last three days, while vegetarian supplies are used for two days before discarding.
For the most part, Tial and Lian sell the whole case daily, although it varies by day of the week. Tial estimates that some days finds them with five or more boxes leftover, which are discarded. The spicy crunch roll and California rolls are the most popular, Lian said.
But for sushi aficionados, there can be a snob factor at play. Is sushi grabbed from a cold case packed in a plastic clamshell of commensurate quality to sushi that is finely plated and served at room temperature in a serene sit-down restaurant?
The answer is, somewhat. It depends on the fish, the chef, and the company. The raw fish sold by Snowfox has a fresh, healthy taste, and if microwaved briefly — less than 30 seconds, depending on your microwave’s power — you can warm the rice base without cooking the fish. A tiny warm up will make the fish more pliable, too. Whatever your taste in the sushi genre, you’ll likely find a roll to match at a Snowfox kiosk. Rolls and sushi combo trays can be made to order if you can’t find what you’re craving, and in that way, the product will be that much more similar to sushi ordered in a sit-down restaurant. It’s made right there and it won’t sit in the case. For something a little different, try the sushi burrito, a fist sized nori-wrapped roll stuffed with sushi rice, tempura shrimp, tuna, salmon, and a crunch of carrots and cucumber. Pulled together by slices of creamy avocado and a dollop of cream cheese, there are also hints of spiciness buried deep inside the roll, thanks to a surimi salad. A hefty 11 ounces, the sushi burrito is as filling as its Mexican food counterpart.
Snowfox fish is off-the-boat fresh tasting and the culinary art form remains intact. “I’m learning it’s not easy to roll sushi,” Ca said. “It’s a hard art form to learn.”
In that, a Snowfox sushi kiosk might be the entry level sushi chef’s first foray into the field, just as grab-and-go sushi offers an opportunity to take this healthy meal concept mainstream.
This article is an expert from The Silver Lining Magazine which is available in digital and print.