Sushi-making robots aren't exactly new on the scene. Back in 1995, The New York Times reported that the Suzumo Machinery Company had designed a $86,000 droid capable of turning out a piece of nigiri sushi every three seconds.
While several Japanese chains used the robots then and lowered prices accordingly, the Times revealed last week that Kura, a 15-year-old chain, had integrated robots into a swift, heavily automated preparation and service process at all 262 of its outlets in Japan.
Hiroko Tabuchi reports:
"Absent are the traditional sushi chefs and their painstaking attention to detail. In their place are sushi-making robots and an emphasis on efficiency. Absent, too, are flocks of waiters. They have been largely replaced by conveyors belts that carry sushi to diners and remote managers who monitor Kura's 262 restaurants from three control centers across Japan. ('We see gaps of over a meter between your sushi plates -- please fix,' a manager said recently by telephone to a Kura restaurant 10 miles away.)"
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Having just returned from a trip to Japan, where we consumed a reasonably gluttonous quantity of hand-crafted sushi, we can imagine that sushi, like most things, benefits from a human touch. Nonetheless, it's hard to dispute Kura's bottom line. While, in 2009, restaurant revenue in Japan sunk 20% from its peak just 12 years prior and bankruptcies have plagued the industry, Kura's profits jumped 20% in the past fiscal year alone--largely because it sells sushi for the equivalent of $1.22 a plate. That's raw, presumably non-lethal fish selling for the price of a fast food hamburger.