Conveyor belt sushi is a concept that allows customers pick from a wide range of one of the most famous Japanese dishes. The idea of serving sushi in this way was created 55 years ago and it transformed sushi from expensive and sophisticated food to casual and inexpensive. Over the years, when conveyor belt sushi machinery evolved and computer technology was more and more advanced, it created an impressive niche in the restaurant market in Japan. Today, conveyor belt sushi restaurants often offer more than just sushi. They also offer culinary experiences that everyone can enjoy.
There are two basic types of sushi restaurants: a traditional sushi bar and contemporary conveyor belt sushi. Traditional sushi bars are quite expensive, which can be daunting if you have a limited budget. Conveyor belt sushi or “sushi go around” made this famous Japanese dish available to everyone. There are about a thousand of such restaurants in Tokyo itself. Sushi moves around the center of the bar. You do not have to place orders personally, you just grab what you want. Prices for each plate are clearly indicated, so it’s easy to control your expenses. The system is very simple, plates have several different colors, each of them has assigned an amount of money. Usually there are seats for individuals or couples at the counter, and for larger groups there are separate tables with couches. The standard menu contains at least 50 different types of sushi, and if there is not what you want on the belt, you can order it directly.
One of the key features of these places is that they are very casual. Everything is as simple as possible. For example, green tea, which is traditionally served free with sushi, you can make by yourself. On the table there is a box with powdered tea and a tap with hot water. Everyone can use it without restrictions. You put in as much as you want, you pour it with water and it is ready. There are also other things like marinated ginger, soy sauce and wasabi, all for use in any amount you want.
How did it all begin?
A few centuries ago, hand-molded sushi was often sold at stands that were outside. It was a quick way to have a meal. Finally, the sushi moved from the stalls to the restaurants. It has become an exquisite kitchen prepared by qualified chefs, with the best ingredients. Sushi has become very expensive for most people. However, there was a man whose dream was that everyone could afford sushi again, and everything took place in Higashiosaka in 1947. This man was Yoshiaki Shiraishi. At the beginning, he opened a small bar where sushi was served to people standing at the counter. Just like in Edo period and each sushi was 20 yen. Convenience and low prices made his sushi bar a hit.
Unfortunately, the popularity of this place led to a situation in which it was difficult for him to find sushi chefs. There was too much work, they worked from morning to evening, and at night it was necessary to prepare the bar for the next day. One by one, sushi chefs had quit the job. It was necessary to find a way out of this situation. In addition, Shiraishi wanted his bar to become even more efficient and to serve even more customers. It often happens that inspiration comes in the least expected place and moment. It was no different in this case. One day, when Shiraishi visited beer bottles factory, he had a flash of genius. A huge number of bottles was flowing on the belt and was filled.
Shiraishi immediately started looking for a company that would create the same belt but for serving sushi. The idea was that the chefs make sushi and put it on the belt that runs around them, customers choose what they want. He thought he would be able to serve three times as many customers in this way. Only a small local company agreed to take up the challenge. Soon after the project started, a problem was found. The existing tapes did not handle the corners very well. As the plates approached the bend, the rectangular parts of the belt hooked on the corner and caused a big sushi traffic jam. And here also a pure accident came with help. One evening he returned home and his relatives played cards. The shape of the cards arranged in a fan led him to the solution. Based on this shape, new elements of the tape have been created which are able to handle corners without any problem.
However, it was not the end yet. It was also necessary to test the direction in which sushi plates should go and at what speed, so it would be convenient for customers. Shiraishi invited local residents for tests (lucky ones!) to find the best parameters. He noticed that people normally hold chopsticks in their right hand, and they grab plates the left one. So the belt should go from right to left. After many attempts, he also determined that 8 cm / s is the best time to flow the belt. In those days, sushi was usually served on rectangular plates, which also caused a problem in the corners. He turned them into round plates, which became standard in all conveyor belt sushi restaurants. In 1958, more than a decade after the idea of conveyor belt sushi was made, Shiraishi opened the first Japanese conveyor belt sushi restaurant. It works to this day and his son runs it.
But that was not the end …
The new type of sushi restaurant has become a hit and started a new era in the sushi industry. The companies started to outdo each other in creating new solutions, to make the conveyor belt sushi even more efficient and even more cheaper. This race continues to this day. In the 1980s sushi robots began to be built. They measured out the right portion of rice and formed it. However, the machine does not have the delicacy of human hands. The rice was too tough and hard. The solution was the material used in baby bottle nipples. It made it possible to recreate the delicate hands of the sushi chef. The first generation of robots created 1200 pieces of sushi per hour. Modern robots can do three times as much. Thanks to this, conveyor belt sushi chains could be developed.
In chains the conveyor belt is laid out in an E shape which allows more diners to be served than with the conventional loop arrangement. This space maximizing system is now standard in conveyor belt sushi. The restaurant can serve 200 customers with kitchen staff no more than 15 people. In fact, there are no chefs, everything is automated and provides high quality at a low price. The mechanism itself is also more modern. On one line, plates with ready sushi flow, but you can also place your order. When the kitchen prepares it, it is sent a separate, fast line. Fast line is located above or below the regular line. After finishing the meal, the plates are thrown into the hole on the table, from where they get straight to the dish washing station. The washed plates are sent to the food preparation area on their own conveyor belt line. Thanks to this, restaurants can serve up to 20,000 sushi plates a day.
To reduce uneaten sushi to an absolute minimum, huge amounts of data are collected and analyzed by computers. When anyone enters a restaurant time is saved. What and when customers ate is automatically registered. Based on a database of 18 million customers from the last 12 months, as well as the local factors specific to each restaurant, they decide what sushi should be set and when on the belt. People in the control center watch over the whole place by a cameras system. They instruct employees by phone if they notice any irregularities.
Each plate has an IC chip, so the shop can monitor all the sushi on the belts. If some sushi is there for too long and it is not fresh anymore, it is automatically disposed. A special device can also calculates the value of eaten sushi, when you move it along the plates. Thanks to this, the customer receives a bill within a second. Thanks to all these activities, it is possible to minimize waste and offer customers the highest quality sushi and service. And that’s what conveyor belt sushi restaurants look like …
…but this is not the end
The most modern conveyor belt sushi restaurants look very futuristic. There is no belt on which the sushi plates flow. Each customer places an order using a touch screen and it arrives as fast as possible. This is announced by the music. These places are very popular among tourists, the menu is available in several languages, and in addition to a range variety of sushi, other dishes are also available: udon, ramen, desserts. This, combined with a low price, means that we can try a lot of different seafood and other Japanese dishes. When you finish eating, just pick a summary and go to the stand, where you can pay the bill.
The creation of the conveyor belt sushi also changed what the Japanese eat. Sushi chains started to serve sushi with salmon, which is now even more popular than tuna. Previously, he was not eaten raw, because the wild salmon has parasites. They started import it from Norway, where salmon is under constant control. The huge competition on the conveyor belt sushi market means that they have to introduce new dishes and new types of seafood. One of the sushi chains came up with the idea of a citrus-flavored fish. They are fed with a special food that contains citrus peel. Research on strawberry-flavored fish is also underway. The conveyor belt sushi made it once again available for everyone. Perhaps they do not offer amazing taste experiences, but at a reasonable price you can eat good, fresh sushi there.