By María Roldán
Osaka, Japan, Dec 15 (EFE).- Conveyor belt sushi restaurants in Japan are headed toward even greater automation with the use of robot chefs to reduce food waste and to tackle the country’s labor shortage.
The concept of kaiten-sushi, whereby sushi is delivered to customers via a conveyor belt, was born in Osaka in 1958 and boomed in the wake of the World Expo that the western Japanese city hosted in 1970 as it became a favorite for residents and tourists alike.
The business has transformed since its beginnings, incorporating new automated technologies for greater efficiency and productivity, while adapting to Japan’s pressing labor crunch.
Automation was key for the financial health of the business as the industry struggled to survive the Covid-19 pandemic.
Nowadays, kaiten-sushi restaurants have adopted more efficient conveyor belts as well as sensors that analyze trends in orders, detect peak times in venues and help streamline production.
After 20 years in the business, Sushiro, the country’s largest sushi chain, has moved robots into its kitchens to prepare the rice for the sushi pieces.
At their restaurant in the neighborhood of Namba, a white machine prepares one nigiri piece per second, an impossible speed for a human.
The device has a heating system that adjusts its temperature to emulate those of a human chef’s hands.
Next to it, another device wraps pieces of rice in nori seaweed for the chefs to finish plating and placing the maki on the conveyor belts.
Sushiro’s dishes are uniquely coded to analyze which items are selling well and to offer the most popular items at each location by time frame.
The company performs a daily analysis of this data to adjust the supply of fish and ingredients which helps reduce food waste, Yutaka Sakaguchi, the director of technology development at Sushiro’s parent company Food % Life, tells Efe in an interview.
The system also monitors the freshness of the pieces based on the time they have been circulating on the conveyor.
“After 35 minutes the sushi is no longer good enough to serve, so it is removed,” said Masato Sugihara, manager of the company’s development department.
But despite the increase in automation, Sakaguchi explains that there is room for improvement.
Some tasks are still “very difficult for a robot,” he says, like “gripping delicate products like rice itself.” EFE