Thoughts on conveyor belt sushi

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Thoughts on conveyor belt sushi

Postby Jenise » Fri Jan 31, 2014 5:23 pm

When I moved to this town ten years ago, I tried all the sushi places--that is, all three of them--and hated what I ate at two. Lame combinations, overly sweet rice, too much mayo. Never went back to either. The one I did like and went back to, with a real Japanese proprietor/sushi chef, sold shortly thereafter and the sushi was then made by two big chubby Chinese guys who probably weren't but 20 years old, with no mastery of technique nor interest in excelling. So that, too, wen on the Do Not Return list. Since then, three conveyor belt sushi operations have opened, all with separate owners. I kind of liked the first one--it wasn't great, but it was better than no sushi--and went back twice more, however on that third visit some sashimi had an ammonia smell and I've never gone back. I've never been to the second one, but it was a regular Japanese restaurant that saw it's business double when it installed the conveyor belt, according to the local biz journal. Last night, I went to the newest/third of the three. It's owner has several very successful Thai restaurants that I've not been to. It's a beautiful room, though, all glass and next door to a new 16-screen theater, with a stunning 10 foot tall sitting Buddha in the center of the belted area--the sushi 'chefs' work in back of it. It's a place that, for location and room-feel, I really wanted to be impressed by.

Didn't happen. At only 6:30 on a weeknight, it seemed to be doing okay business for Bellingham--that is, it was about half full--but the conveyor belt was 2/3 empty, and if my estimate's slightly wrong than it was 3/4 empty. At best, three empties went by for every one that offered food. The empties I refer to are pedestals/bases, about the size of a can of tuna, that have a name on them like "Monster Roll" or "Today's Special", on top of which the plates of food go. The bases aren't permanently affixed, they can be removed, but instead once relieved of its food it just rides around until the sushi chef replaces the food. And if he doesn't? It makes the paucity of offerings even more glaring, as it emphasizes all the food that's missing. Several of the menu items were never refilled while we were there. For all we know, they were never even offered that day. And many of the foods weren't viable options: they were hot dishes turned cold and fried foods now soggy. We found out the hard way, of course, and avoided all similar items.

Most of the rolls were on uncovered plates, but the supposed hot items like gyozas and spring rolls as well as most or all of the nigiri stuff were covered for heat retention, whether or not that worked out as intended, and freshness. IIRC, the other conveyor place didn't cover any of the foods. Here, though, were covers of were clear plastic which were hard to see through. I picked one up and held it up to the light to see if the haziness was built into the cover or the result of dishwasher etching and was dismayed to find something even worse: it had multiple, overlapping finger prints suggesting that the covers aren't cleaned between re-use and therefore offer you the opportunity to share germs with multiple prior customers and food handlers--an absolutely unforgiveable lapse of hygiene.

I love sushi. I love sitting at sushi bars. I love the ritual experience of dining slowly and watching my food made pristeenly fresh just for me. I also like talking to the chef and the communal experience of talking to the strangers we're next to. Therefore, conveyor belt sushi holds no particular appeal to me. But I get that it can work at peak hours in crowded locations, for the same reasons that dim sum was invented as a businessman's lunch.

Last night's meal exposed all the downsides. This isn't New York or even Seattle. This town isn't a dining town in the first place--Olive Garden's the most successful restaurant here, and numerous well-qualified attempts to lure the locals into more creative fine dining have failed. And furthermore, this town dines early, and when it can't it goes to McDonalds. So at 6:30 p.m. in a half full restaurant, there's a rapidly declining incentive for a conveyor belt restaurant to make new food that's only to be wasted. Which also means that after 6:00, say, there's a declining reason for a discerning diner to eat there.

Sure, you could custom order off the menu for food that would, ostensibly, be made fresh for you. But one reviewer of this restaurant on Trip Advisor (where there were only three reviews: one Excellent, two Terribles) said he noted the problem with the hot foods right away so custom-ordered everything he wanted to eat as a guarantee of maximum freshness. And what did the waitress do? She filled their order by pulling from the conveyor belt.

I'm guessing this restaurant's not going to make it. Even if the food is better than passably acceptable at peak hour, even the guy who's never going to hold one of those plastic covers up to the light will soon figure out that there's no point showing up unless a certain critical mass is also present.

And so it will be everywhere touched by this fad, if fad it is.
My wine shopping and I have never had a problem. Just a perpetual race between the bankruptcy court and Hell.--Rogov
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Re: Thoughts on conveyor belt sushi

Postby Mark Lipton » Fri Jan 31, 2014 6:03 pm

Jenise,
Conveyor belt sushi had its origin in East Asia, either in Japan, where a love of technology has driven so many aspects of style, or Korea. I've gone to places in Portland, OR and Munich that had such an arrangement, and it can be done very well. (In Munich, the chefs were in the center of the conveyor belt and in full view of the audience. In Portland, there was a twist: the "conveyor belt" was a circulating "river" on which the sushi traveled in wooden boats. It was very well conceived an executed, and a delight to see. As always, it comes down to ingredients and technique. A flaw in either of those can't be remedied by surroundings or presentation no matter how lovely they may be. Sorry that Bellingham can't get it right.

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Re: Thoughts on conveyor belt sushi

Postby Rahsaan » Fri Jan 31, 2014 6:08 pm

10-15 years ago when I was going to Japan, conveyor belt sushi was a cheap/affordable version of the pleasure. Not the highest heights of sushi, but not priced like that either. So you knew what you were getting. Just like a sandwich shop vs. a fine restaurant.

I have no idea what innovations/twists/refinements have come along in the meantime.
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Re: Thoughts on conveyor belt sushi

Postby Robin Garr » Fri Jan 31, 2014 6:21 pm

Joining the chorus of "it can be okay," there is (or, a few years ago, was) a sizable conveyor belt joint in San Francisco's Little Japan that was much like others have described: Chefs working in the center in plain view, making just enough quality sushi to keep the conveyor loaded. It still wasn't the same as sitting at a regular bar with the guys joking with you as they make your sushi while you watch, but it was about as good as conveyor sushi wents.

I'm pretty sure Mary and I went to at least a couple of conveyor spots in Tokyo and maybe either Kyoto or Himeji when we were in Japan in 1991, and had no complaints.
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Re: Thoughts on conveyor belt sushi

Postby Jenise » Fri Jan 31, 2014 8:55 pm

I realize it CAN work; and as such it would have been the perfect post-movie for us last night. But as I realized last night, it's not going to work if the restaurant isn't busy.

Btw, conveyor belt sushi was invented by Yoshiaki Shiraishi (1914-2001), who had problems staffing his small sushi restaurant and had difficulties managing the restaurant by himself. He got the idea of a conveyor belt sushi after watching beer bottles on a conveyor belt in an Asahi brewery. After five years of developing the design of the conveyor belt, Shiraishi opened the first conveyor belt sushi Mawaru Genroku Sushi in Osaka in 1958, quickly creating a chain of 240 restaurants all over Japan. However, the number of restaurants was down to 11 by 2001.
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Re: Thoughts on conveyor belt sushi

Postby Doug Surplus » Sat Feb 01, 2014 2:19 am

I was a late convert to sushi having had bad sushi earlier in life (mostly due to poor quality seaweed in the wraps). I don't think I'd go to a conveyor belt operation. I want my sushi to be freshly prepared, when I order it, not pulled from the conveyor belt where it might sit for a while before being served. If it's not fresh, it's not worth eating (and paying for).
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Re: Thoughts on conveyor belt sushi

Postby Jeff Grossman/NYC » Sat Feb 01, 2014 5:04 am

My experience in Japan is like Rahsaan's, and about the same vintage.

When we would go for conveyor-belt sushi, my Japanese friend assured me that I could shout what I wanted to the chef and he would make it / send it around. Otherwise, all you get is the stuff that sells the easiest.
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Re: Thoughts on conveyor belt sushi

Postby Jeff Grossman/NYC » Sat Feb 01, 2014 5:07 am

Separate post for a separate thought: Conveyor-belt sushi joints always remind me of a place I used to go when I was growing up. It was a diner called Hamburger Express. Their gimmick was a model train loop around the counter: it had an engine, three flatbed cars, and a caboose. Each flatbed was capable of holding a dinner plate, and if you were of the right age for it, they'd send your meal to you by train. It was so cool.
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Re: Thoughts on conveyor belt sushi

Postby Karen/NoCA » Sat Feb 01, 2014 4:29 pm

There is a little dive in Redding called Sakura Sushi. It has been owned by the same sushi chef for a very long time. It is my understanding that he lives and has family in San Francisco, goes home on Friday and drives back up here Monday morning. Out side, the place looks questionable. It is across the street from the best meat and fresh fish shops in Redding. Also, across the street from a drug infested apartment complex with too many calls for service. But, they all seem to co-exist peacefully. Sakura's is a small restaurant, clean on the inside and cozy. It is packed for lunch and dinner most days and has been for years. Kenji, the sushi chef works hard behind the counter...you can watch as he creates his beautiful food. Gene is not a fan of this type of eating, so generally I pop in by myself for tempura veggies, and his seafood salad. If you are traveling on the I-5 in this area and happen to remember, it would make a nice stop for a good meal. Here is the Yelp review link in case you want to take a look.

http://www.yelp.com/biz/sakura-sushi-redding
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Re: Thoughts on conveyor belt sushi

Postby Mike Filigenzi » Sat Feb 01, 2014 4:55 pm

I've had good and bad experiences with the conveyor-belt type places. There was one in Davis that used the little boats-on-a-stream concept that Mark mentioned. It was pretty good when it first opened. The chefs were in the middle of the whole thing and you could request items from them or just grab whatever went by. Whatever floated (on) your boat, so to speak. The different types of sushi were placed on different types of plates, with the plate representing the price tag for that particular item. You stacked your plates next to you as you ate and when you were ready to leave, a server came by, checked the plates, and tallied up your bill. As I said, pretty good stuff. After a year or so, though, they dropped their prices and the quality suffered commensurately probably due to competition from fairly crummy all-you-can-eat sushi places. They ended up closing down and getting replaced by yet another crummy all-you-can-eat place.

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Re: Thoughts on conveyor belt sushi

Postby Bill Spohn » Sat Feb 01, 2014 8:42 pm

You are SUPPOSED to stack your used platters in front of you to be counted at the end of the dinner. Twice now I have seen patrons that have inmibed too much sake putting empties back on the belt or in the trough of water! :mrgreen:
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Re: Thoughts on conveyor belt sushi

Postby Jenise » Sat Feb 01, 2014 9:59 pm

Bill Spohn wrote:You are SUPPOSED to stack your used platters in front of you to be counted at the end of the dinner. Twice now I have seen patrons that have inmibed too much sake putting empties back on the belt or in the trough of water! :mrgreen:


I've never seen that! Makes me giggle, though. The other night, I was so annoyed by the cold, soggy "handmade spring rolls" that I thought--briefly--that it would serve them right if I put them, without cover, and one bite removed from each, back on the conveyor belt for all to admire. They'd have travelled most of the restaurant before someone official would have seen them. :)
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Re: Thoughts on conveyor belt sushi

Postby Bill Buitenhuys » Mon Feb 03, 2014 2:33 pm

I've only had negative to nothing special experiences at the moving feast sushi spots near us.
The cold sushi here all had plastic domes covering, thankfully.

It's not something that I'm likely to try again. It's so much more rewarding sitting at the bar watching your food being prepped.
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