As I write in The Sushi Economy, the invention of conveyor-belt sushi in the 1950s — where it is known as kaiten-zushi — radically changed not only the economics of sushi but its place in Japanese culture, reintroducing the Japanese to sushi as a quick snack. There were two major components to the kaiten-zushi innovation: the invention of the technology, by an Osaka tinkerer named Yoshiaki Shiraishi, who saw a conveyor belt while touring a beer-bottling plant and decided that it could be used to spin around sushi instead. (The most difficult part for Shiraishi was timing the movement of the belt, so that plates would circle efficiently, but not so quickly that a diner couldn’t process and select one.) But Shiraishi’s restaurant, Genroku Sushi, didn’t fully take off until the 1970s, when the Japanese welcomed foreign-owned restaurants — and McDonald’s provided a model of how to finance a fast-food chain. Today there are over 2,000 of them around Japan.
Now a Seattle mini-chain, Blue C Sushi, is trying to solve one of the old problems of the kaiten-zushi bar. The traditional sushi bar is one of the few places where a diner sees his meal being prepared, as it goes from the chef’s hands to the diner’s without interference. The glass case is the ultimate venue for culinary transparency. But the conveyor belt obscures the diner’s knowledge about when and where and how dinner was made, and the Blue C is trying to confront a reasonable fear that a piece of hamachi has been spinning around since lunch. There, James Allard and Steve Rosen are introducing RFID tags to the bottom of plates so that every piece on the conveyor belt can be tracked, reports Robert Malone over at Forbes. Once a piece has been making the rounds for 90 minutes, it can be removed.
Part of the marvel of kaiten-zushi was that it depersonalized the intimate relationship between chef and diner over the sushi bar, and eschewed the ritualism of the meal there for efficiency. If Blue C can pull off RFID tags, sushi diners will be able to have the efficiency of the conveyor belt along with the transparency of the old-fashioned bar.