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Japan’s Conveyer Belt Sushi Restaurants Are Switching to Touchscreens

In hopes of cutting down on food waste and increasing profits, Japan's popular conveyer-belt sushi restaurants are switching to tablets and abandoning their best-known feature.
Hilary Pollack
Los Angeles, US
Photo via Flickr user redjar

If there's one singular food culture that Japan is best known for around the world, it's sushi. And with great sushi comes a great variety of ways of eating it. Take, for instance, the novel delivery of kaitenzushi restaurants, which bring you sushi rolls via conveyer belt.

Kaitenzushi has actually been around since 1958, when Yoshiaki Shiraishi opened the first revolving-sushi restaurant in Osaka, Japan, after being inspired by the mechanics of an Asahi beer factory processing line.

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At the time, the technology was considered state-of-the-art, and marked a turning point for the very traditional and not particularly accessible culture of sushi at the time. Rather than requiring customers to wait patiently for their individual orders of maki or sashimi to be filled, the new restaurant design could deliver plates to dozens of customers simultaneously. And with lowered labor costs, restaurants could charge less for each plate, effectively transforming sushi into a form of healthy fast food.

"While many in the old guard sniffed at the outsider's invention as a travesty and a depersonalization of the sushi experience, consumers loved it," the Los Angeles Times wrote of kaitenzushi when Shiraishi passed away in 2001.

As of 2009, the conveyer-belt sushi market had grown to about US $3.5 billion, with kaitenzushi restaurants found all over the US, England, Australia, France, China, and South Korea, in addition to the many outlets in Japan. Recent surveys have indicated that up to 84 percent of sushi consumed in Japan now is the charmingly cheap kind delivered via conveyer belt.

But now, the way we order sushi is changing yet again.

One major problem encountered in kaitenzushi restaurants is that of waste. If something keeps bobbing along on the conveyer belt for too long, it has to be thrown out.

The solution: touchscreens. Kaitenzushi chain Genki Sushi, which currently has roughly 130 branches in Japan, is abandoning conveyer belts entirely in favor of a system that uses screens to allow customers to place their order instantly without having to worry that the plate they're grabbing has lost its freshness. Kappa Sushi, another major chain with about 340 stores in Japan, is also transitioning to a conveyer-belt-free model, according to Japanese news site Shueisha.

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The food is still delivered by automation rather than a waiter. Once the dish is prepared in the kitchen, it's whisked to the appropriate table on a small tray that operates on a rail—still, in theory, a conveyer belt. But gone is the carousel that revolves dishes all around the restaurant for the viewing pleasure of seated guests. The company has plans to convert all of its restaurants to this system within five years.

A Genki Sushi representative told Shueisha that direct orders on touchscreens now account for about 80 percent of the sushi sold in the redesigned restaurants. Thirty Genku Sushi spots now have no conveyer belt at all, but for the outlets that have both touchscreens and conveyer belts, about 5 percent of the rotating sushi still gets thrown out, costing the company the equivalent of a whopping US $8.9 million each year.

Sure, the shift will take some of the whimsy out of the kaitenzushi experience. But if it means fresher fish and less food waste, it might be time to stare into the future. And the future, as Yoshiaki probably never dreamed of, is ordering your spicy tuna roll via touchscreen.