Why Suffolk-based ichiban really is the UK’s ‘Number One’ in sushi

The ichiban sushi factory at Earl Stonham, near Stowmarket.

The ichiban sushi factory at Earl Stonham, near Stowmarket. - Credit: Archant

June 18 was International Sushi Day. FRANCES HOPEWELL-SMITH visited the ichiban factory near Stowmarket to find out more about the Japanese cuisine, and how the UK’s largest producer in the sector comes to be located in Suffolk.

In the world of prepared Japanese food, one company in England has the lion’s share.

ichiban UK makes 500,000 packs of sushi each and every week, gets them into chilled lorries and on to shops’ shelves the next day, 364 days a year.

In its immaculately efficient factory, 350 people are employed full-time to ensure all this happens without a hitch. And it all happens in the Suffolk countryside, just outside Stowmarket.

I’ve driven past the driveway many times and wondered what lay behind the tall hedges so it was something of a coup to get inside. My appointment is at 10am and as I arrive at the big, closed gates; it’s only the ichiban (meaning number one in Japanese) sign outside that reassures me I’m in the right place.

There’s nothing to hint at the food industry going on, just an extraordinary level of security and notices to advise of everything from where to walk to where to park and what to wear. Sadly, I don’t have my high vis jacket with me otherwise I’d fit right in.

The admin building is an old timber-framed house to one side of the site and managing diredtor Andrew Wilkinson has a homely office looking out on to a pretty courtyard. Once in Andrew’s office we get down to the nitty-gritty. The history of ichiban in this country dates from 2007 when it occupied two industrial units in Waltham Abbey.

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Needing to expand, the then owners looked for suitable sites and without any prior knowledge of the area found just what they were looking for in Suffolk. There was a period of trial and testing once the company moved, and the owners, Mitsui, one of the largest companies in Japan, ultimately decided they wanted to withdraw from the UK convenience foodmarket.

This is when, in 2013, the owners of the new 20 hectare site, Bob Baker and his wife, Patricia stepped in. They were keen to keep the business running and to secure the jobs which were so important in the locality. With a belief and trust which is admirable, the Bakers bought the company and invested £750,000 in new machinery and facilities which was match funded.

“They really want to invest in the people and the area,” says Andrew, “Bob has boundless energy and enthusiasm and he has really enjoyed learning all about the chilled food convenience market that we compete in.”

Now with a turnover of £25million, they employ a core of skilled, trained sushi specialists. The number of employees rises from 350 to 550 in peak times during the spring and early summer. The operation is super efficient, the essential sushi rice prepared in the traditional Japanese way and, yes, of course it works 24 hours a day.

The production is all done from 6,000 square metres of ultra modern units and, even having filled in the right forms, I’m not allowed to see inside. (I’ve been in the food business myself and understand only too well the risks involved in introducing unknowns into a system where everything has to be so carefully monitored and safeguarded). ichiban UK has been given the highest integrity rating by the supermarkets they supply, a rating they can’t afford to compromise.

Andrew and I discuss our favourite Japanese food and restaurants and exchange stories of the wonderful nature of this oriental cuisine: The amazing seaweed salads, shabu shabu pots (a kind of Japanese fondue), the light and delicate tempura batter which is used to cover vegetables and seafood before quickly frying, the wonderful ways with aubergine, tofu, beef and chicken.

We agree it’s so diverse and healthy tasting that we seldom tire of it. So what is sushi? Its main ingredient is cooked vinegared rice, but that’s just the start. Sheets of dried seaweed are covered with sushi rice and layered with a variety of fillings like cucumber, red pepper, carrot, duck and cooked prawn or salmon. Then they are rolled up and sliced into neat bite sizes, different varieties packed into each box.

The “California” roll is a larger version, usually without the seaweed outer layer, sprinkled with sesame seeds instead. They are habitually served with soy sauce, a squidge of wasabi (green horseradish paste) and slithers of delicious pickled ginger. In spite of the sheer variety of Japanese food Andrew says his job would be so much easier if people could appreciate that sushi is absolutely not synonymous with raw fish! Sashimi is raw fish, sushi is anything that is served with vinegared rice.

Always on the lookout for new ideas, Andrew tells me of secret plans in the pipeline; I can’t reveal them obviously, but they will be corkers. There’s one development though he’s eager to share. And it’s quite a story.

“A year ago we interviewed a young Japanese woman for the job of kitchen assistant. She told us that she had married a local Englishman and had all but given up of finding a job and had booked her flight back to Tokyo the next day to resume teaching there. This was her last hope.

“She made a very good impression and was offered the job immediately. Within weeks she proved to have a natural talent for developing new ideas and products and on the strength of that expertise ichiban decided to start our own label range of sushi. But, what to call it? After a lot of thought the decision was unanimous and the new packs are now labelled Yumie – after the young woman who inspired and created the range.”

A quick internal call and Yumie comes into the office. She’s beaming and tells me how proud her whole family is and how coming to work at ichiban has changed her life. We chat a bit (luckily her English is decidedly better than my Japanese) then she dashes off to get some of her products.

The new packs are bright and zippy with “Yumie” in large colourful letters across the top. We all discuss the different varieties in the boxes and how appealing the new design is. Then, without meaning to hint, I ask where I can buy Yumie sushi locally. They’re only available in universities and colleges at the moment says Andrew but these particular boxes are mine to take home – so I for one celebrated International Sushi Day in style.