The future of conveyor-belt sushi


Special To The Japan Times

In October, U.K. sushi chain Yo! Sushi opened a new kaiten (conveyor belt) restaurant in a Florida mall. It is the third branch the chain has established in the United States this year, and more branches are slated to open in 2016. It is a reminder that this automated approach to dining continues to intrigue eaters outside of Japan.

Yet in its birth country, kaiten sushi is changing. Kappa Sushi, one of the major chains, debuted a new restaurant in September in Tokyo’s Aoyama neighborhood called Sushi Nova. Since then, new locations have opened in Asakusa, Harajuku and Shibuya.

All the changes to the industry are on display at Sushi Nova. The Aoyama shop is compact, with a clean and futuristic interior. The menu includes classic fish options, but also devotes space to desserts, tempura and quirky “vegetable sushi” items. Customers order via touchscreens and a single-track delivery system zips the ordered food directly to tables within minutes.

“We save a lot this way,” says Junichi Takagi, public relations director for Colowide Group, a food service company that acquired Kappa Sushi in late 2014. “A classic kaiten system requires a lot of space. … The rent for restaurants in the city can be very expensive.”

Sushi Nova is one of the first “urban” kaiten sushi chains in Japan, taking ideas developed during the conveyer-belt boom of 1970s and ’80s and adjusting them for the metropolis. As the country’s population continues to migrate into urban centers and more tourists than ever visit Tokyo, chains are seeing an opportunity to boost the lagging sales of their regional branches.

Osaka inventor and entrepreneur Yoshiaki Shiraishi opened the first kaiten sushi restaurant in 1958, and two decades later the format was ubiquitous.

“From 1980, the standard sushi restaurant model started to resemble a chain style, and they popped up all over,” Takagi says.

It remained a profitable model for decades and Kappa Sushi, founded in 1979, reaped the benefits.

“It was one of the only parts of the food service industry that kept soaring over the last decade,” says Nobuo Yonekawa, a kaiten sushi critic and consultant. “Two years ago, they started experiencing tougher times.”

Growth stalled partially because too many kaiten restaurants had opened in the suburbs, where it is easier to find the space needed for large conveyor-belt systems. Kappa Sushi was hit especially hard. They recorded a net loss of ¥7.1 billion in 2013, and a Business Journal article earlier this year reported they had developed a reputation for inexpensive and “cheap” sushi, which further hurt their image.

During this period, chains looked beyond sushi to attract a more diverse set of consumers. Kappa rivals Sushiro and Hamazushi began giving more space on their menus to ramen, curry and beef bowls.

Attracting new customers is great, but if the regions where your branches are located are sparsely populated, it doesn’t really matter what you add to the menu. Yonekawa says that as regional populations dwindle, kaiten chains will shift their attention to more crowded locations, such as malls. And, like the rest of the country, the chains are also moving to the big smoke. Takagi says Sushi Nova plans to open 100 stores by 2019, all in the greater Tokyo area.

Sushi Nova is not the first attempt at establishing an urban sushi chain.

“Uobei in Shibuya is the pioneer of the new sushi restaurant style,” Yonekawa says.

Genki Sushi — another struggling kaiten company — opened Uobei in 2013 to test a new model for serving sushi to the city. It has set the standard for this new breed of restaurant, with its sleek design, menu that extends well beyond fish and a touchpad ordering system that replaces the conveyor belt.

This last point also plays a central role in how Takagi hopes Sushi Nova will appeal to customers.

“This way, we don’t have to waste much food, we can be environmentally friendly,” he says.

Now the number of touchscreens and single-track delivery systems are on the increase, even at regular kaiten restaurants. Part of the reason for this is that sushi left out too long on the conveyor belt will eventually need to be thrown away. Genki Sushi announced earlier this year that they plan to introduce touchscreens to all their establishments. But Yonekawa is not convinced that Sushi Nova and Uobei will be successful. He worries that, despite changes to their store designs and menus, the chains’ reputations for inexpensive sushi might continue to turn off some consumers.

“But I do think they can be popular among non-Japanese tourists,” he says.

Although Sushi Nova was intended to primarily service the untapped city market, the increasing number of foreign tourists was also considered while the new business model was being developed. Takagi says Colowide has been marketing to tourists for eight years with its other brands.

“The Tokyo Olympics isn’t just a special reason to market to them,” he says. “It has (always) been a priority for us.”

Accordingly, the touchscreens at Sushi Nova and Uobei feature English, Chinese and Korean menus. Also, Takagi says free Wi-Fi and power outlets are available for customers — potentially providing an much needed place for tired travelers to recharge their batteries.

Despite these changes, don’t expect the kaiten sushi stores of yesteryear to vanish. Both Takagi and Yonekawa noted the appeal that old-school kaiten venues have with families. For many, these restaurants are tinged with nostalgia for a bygone era of economic prosperity.

Though Sushi Nova and Uobei may appeal to city residents and tourists, they are not really designed for a family of four to enjoy together on a Saturday night.

The kaiten business model will continue evolving, but until Tokyo finally lures the last residents away from the countryside, there will still be a place for restaurants outside the metropolis that serve sushi the old-fashioned way: on massive, convoluted conveyer belts, surrounded by family-sized booths with not a touchscreen in sight.