Kaitenzushi, or conveyor belt sushi restaurants, are one of Japan’s most famous contributions to the dining world. The concept is simple: customers sit around a revolving conveyor belt packed with different sushi dishes, and take the plates they like as they roll by. But now in Japan there’s a new trend that’s threatening to put the brakes on the traditional conveyor belt system. It seems that Japanese customers no longer want to take any dishes off the conveyor belt, instead opting to use it as a giant, revolving display case. Customers are now pointing at the perfectly edible sushi as if they are plastic sushi replicas and ordering them with the wait staff.
The new trend seems to be influenced by the hugely popular touch panel ordering system offered by a number of kaitenzushi chains in recent years. Touch panels installed at dining booths let customers scroll through a variety of sushi options, and even keep track of the bill throughout the meal. An added upside to the fun system is the knowledge that the order goes straight to the sushi chef who then whips up the sushi, guaranteeing minimal time between the chef’s skilled hands and the customer’s demanding taste buds.
This digital tweak to the almost 60-year-old kaitenzushi tradition is now affecting conveyor belt sushi restaurants all around Japan. In a country where customer satisfaction is paramount, business owners without touch panel screens are accommodating orders for freshly made sushi with the odd, but workable point-at-the-sushi-train ordering system. Customers who want a fresh order simply look at the plates going round, call the wait staff over, then point at the ones they like and ask for them to be prepared. This type of ordering was unheard of until only recently, but now in Tokyo this practice has become so common that many wait staff don’t even blink an eye to it anymore.
Young university types, middle-aged men and women, and mothers with children have all been seen ordering this way. Maruha Nichiro Corporation, a Japanese seafood company, confirmed the recent move away from traditional kaitenzushi ordering habits when they surveyed 1,000 customers about their preferences. The respondents, all men and women who visit these types of restaurants once a month or more, were asked whether they mostly take plates from the revolving belt or if they place their sushi orders with wait staff. They found that 61.1 percent mostly order with the wait staff.
With customers preferring freshness over speed, the future of kaitenzushi remains unknown. Already, some restaurants in Japan have thrown away their oval-shaped conveyor belts and refitted their shops with touch screens and special three-tiered “high speed transport lanes” in an effort to make the customers’ fresh orders appear before their very eyes. Who knows what exciting innovations this new generation of customers will inspire? One thing is certain though; they’ll soon be rewriting the guidebooks when it comes to visiting kaitenzushi restaurants in Japan.