Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Sushi Secret: Robot Rice Patters Restaurants Expand with the Help of Fast Machines

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Sushi Secret: Robot Rice Patters Restaurants Expand with the Help of Fast Machines

Article excerpt

ROBOTS HAVE come to New York, and what they have in their cold little plastic hands is sushi.

Quicker than a human, inevitable like the tide, the Suzumo Machinery Co.'s sushi robot, an $86,000 machine with four pairs of white plastic hands, is turning out 1,200 rectangular pieces of sushi every hour in a Queens commissary, for sale later in fast-food restaurants. The hands pat the rice once, twice. Pat, pat.

They pat the rice again. Pat, pat. Wasabi, a horseradish sauce, drizzles from a tube onto the rice. Kimie Ueki, a sushi chef, places the fish on the rice, and the plastic hands pat the rice yet again. The whole process takes three seconds.

No matter how experienced or nimble, a sushi chef can turn out only 200 to 300 pieces of sushi an hour. The robot not only does it faster, but also does it more cheaply. Machine-made sushi sells for between 50 and 70 cents apiece, while handmade sushi is $1.50 apiece or more.

The robot, which came to this country in 1990, is leading to the creation of fast-food Japanese restaurant chains, especially in Manhattan and Los Angeles, that have ambitious plans for expansion.

Already, they have devoted customers who are looking for the convenience and price of fast food but not the menus typically offered in places like McDonald's and Burger King. Each weekday in Manhattan, nearly 100,000 pieces of sushi made by robots are sold.

All these pieces of sushi - topped with salmon, tuna or shrimp, or wrapped around cucumbers, avocado or eel - are produced by three Japanese fast-food chains, which between them have 24 restaurants just in Manhattan: Sushi-Tei, with five outlets; Teriyaki Boy, with six, and Daikichi Sushi, with 13.

At noon on a recent Friday at Teriyaki Boy at 106 West 43d Street, people stood in line patiently, waiting for their chicken teriyaki or holding their plastic boxes of already made sushi, waiting to pay. Michael Brookes, the academic director of the City University of New York baccalaureate program, said he ate sushi at Teriyaki Boy two or three times a week.

"It's quick, convenient, reasonable and good," he said. "It's always very fresh."

Hillary Jacobs, a textile saleswoman, is also a sushi devotee, but her allegiance is to Daikichi Sushi, at 1407 Broadway, across the street from her office. …

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