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Fresh Ideas for Sushi

Sakura Koyama

Whirling past diners like a merry-go-round, conveyor-belt sushi has been a popular Japanese budget food since it was invented in the 1950s. Recently, some restaurants are giving the dish a new spin.

At one branch of a major restaurant chain in suburban Tokyo, small plates of sushi make their way along the counter. The chain also serves made-to-order sushi. Customers seated beside the conveyor belt make requests through a touch panel. Freshly made sushi is transported to their table.

These days, more diners seem to want their sushi made to order. The company says such people account for about 80 percent of customers. In the chain's new branch in central Tokyo, there is no sign of the familiar parade of plates.

Instead, a single express lane shoots orders straight out to customers. One diner told us, "It's delicious, because it's all freshly made."

Since everything's made to order, there's less waste. The slimmed-down equipment also takes up less space. The company plans to open 100 similar outlets in central Tokyo by 2019, the year before the Olympics.

"We've always focused on the suburbs in the past, so central Tokyo is an almost untouched market," says Masami Yamashita, vice president of restaurant firm, Kappa Create. "That's why we're developing our business in that area, and concentrating on this kind of store."

Another restaurant chain that is profiting from the suburbs has no branches in central Tokyo.

The restaurant features curry and other items in addition to sushi. It has increased its dessert menu, in hopes of attracting budget diners and people looking for a quick bite.

Taste is very important. Once a week, a team reviews prototype dishes. Last year, they tasted 1,200 items. But only 50 made it onto the menu.

The company began offering its expanded menu three years ago, and profits are up since then.

A customer said, "I think it's a great idea to let customers choose from a variety of items besides sushi."

Akihiro Tsuji, a manager at the restaurant operator, Kura Corporation, said, "These days, we face competition both from restaurants and convenience stores offering high-quality items. If we want to survive, we'll have to keep adapting and moving forward." Competition in Japan's food service industry is intense. Companies like these hope their fresh approaches will also put them in the express lane -- to higher profits.

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