Did You See This?

A New Generation of Conveyor-Belt Sushi

This system takes scale and efficency to scary, impressive lengths.

Restaurants like the ones in the video above represent a collision between Japan’s past and its future. Their owners know that scale and efficiency can be the difference between success and failure, and when you add Japan’s technological innovation, it’s no surprise you wind up with intensely modern restaurant chains offering the next generation of conveyor-belt sushi.

The conveyor belt in the restaurant in the video is shaped like an e, and it ferries a never-ending sushi buffet past diners’ tables. When people are done eating, they insert their used plates into slots beneath the belt and the dirty dinnerware is passed into a massive dishwasher that can clean 1,800 plates an hour, or 20,000 a day. Customers can also order nonbuffet dishes via tableside touchscreen—those dishes fly in on a separate, upper conveyor belt. The whole operation is half Futurama, half Rube Goldberg, and yet all Japanese, even though systems like this are starting to appear all over the world.

In a culture where careful presentation of foods is a cherished tradition, the restaurant requires no human servers at all. In fact, there aren’t any chefs, either. Except for final assembly, all the sushi is prepared exclusively by machines, so the streamlined kitchen staff of 15 can keep 196 customers happy at a time.

To further promote efficiency—and profit—no data is left untracked. Customers are counted and timed. Sushi containers have an embedded chip that lets the restaurant know what’s selling, and the buffet’s selection is continuously refreshed by the chain’s head office based on data from 18 million customers over 12 months, as well as local factors. The chain also watches all of its restaurants via CCTV from a central control room, reallocating workers as necessary to clear bottlenecks and to ensure each diner leaves the table satisfied.