Features

The conveyor belt sushi model, and its future in the restaurant industry

A closer look at the (brief) history of rotating sushi in Manila

Photo by Kelvin Zyteng /Unsplash

In traditional sushi restaurants, chefs prepare orders in front of the customers. They converse with the diners, customizing each piece of sushi depending on their preference. But diverting from this usual approach to serving sushi is the growing trend of the conveyor-belt system. Genki Sushi pioneered the concept of the conveyor belt system in the Philippines when it opened its first branch in 2015. The conveyor belt is an automated ordering system wherein the customers are provided with a touch-screen tablet menu that enables them to browse, order, and bill out without leaving their seats. Within eight to 10 minutes, the order is delivered via a Kousuko Express Train System, which is inspired by the Shinkansen bullet train. This delivery system is programmed to reach its designated table while signalling its arrival. Once the orders are claimed, a return button sends the train back to the kitchen.  Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology is used to keep track of the plates going around in the conveyor belt, ensuring that all orders are delivered as quickly as possible so that only the freshest ones remain in circulation.  Genki Sushi, just like most Japanese conveyor belt sushi chains, places huge importance on quality control, which is why it took almost a year to bring the technology to the Philippines. But in the few years that the restaurant has been in operation, customers are slowly adapting to this new technology.

THE CONVEYOR BELT SYSTEM: HOW DOES IT WORK?

The conveyor belt model was invented by Yoshiaki Shiraishi, a restaurateur from Osaka. He got the inspiration for the model when he visited a brewing factory and saw how beer bottles were being transported through a conveyor belt. He then thought of how this similar machinery might fit in his stand-up sushi bar and improve his food business. In 1958, he opened Mawaru Genroku Sushi, the first sushi restaurant to have a fully-operating sushi conveyor belt. Japanese sushi chef Fumio Saito adopted the model for Genki Sushi ten years later. It wasn’t long until the rest of the world caught up and other restaurants adopted the technology.

Since its conception decades ago, conveyor belt sushi or kaiten-zushi has seen developments, with chains such as Genki Sushi innovating the technology to reduce costs and become more eco-friendly. Their aim is to soon remove conveyor belts and just stick with the single-track delivery system. Conveyor belts take up a large space inside a restaurant, leaving only little area for chairs and tables for the customers. This is mostly not profit-generating as the rent to set up a restaurant (likely situated in the city) can’t be compensated by the limited number of customers that can be accommodated. Another problem is that conveyor belts produce a hefty amount of food waste. The common kaiten puts out sushi on the conveyor belt and customers will simply get whatever they want—but since not all of the sushi will be taken, the staff has to dispose those that have been in the conveyor belt for too long because by that time they might have already dried out and lost their original taste and texture. There exists a modified conveyor-belt system where customers first tap in their order on a tablet before it is placed on the rail. Although not as heavy as what the regular system produces, there is still an amount of uneaten sushi which still ends up being wasted. The direct-order, single-track delivery system still remains to be the best way to ensure that food comes in fresh and fast. A challenge Genki Sushi is facing (and perhaps all other convertor-belt sushi restaurants) is the inevitable comparison to the traditional way of serving sushi. Whereas the advanced service is quick and convenient, the classic version lends a personal touch to the customer’s restaurant experience. Since the latter involves human interaction, it’s easy to pattern consumer preferences right away, even in mid-conversation.

THE FUTURE OF KAITEN-ZUSHI

But even if the former is completely a one-way communication process, there is still potential in maximizing the over-all sushi-bar experience through the food and service. Conveyor belts have become one of the most inexpensive ways to serve sushi. It is generally time-effective for both the chefs and the diners. There is no need to call in waiters (unless one decides to order beer and other specialty drinks) and little to no waiting time for the food to come in. And since dishes come in single-served portions, it’s easier for consumers to gauge how much food they want to eat.

There is much promise in the modernized approach to serving sushi. For one, the kind of quality sushi it can produce at such a fast pace ensures freshness. Lastly, since it is mostly made up of rice, raw or cooked fish, and vegatables, sushi is a relatively healthy option for diners who want to stick to a less meat-heavy diet.

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