Weird tech: Raw fish ID

RFID, event-processing software ensure fresh, demand-driven sushi

When James Allard lived in Japan as a student in the 1990s, he frequented kaiten sushi restaurants, which keep prices low by circulating dishes on a conveyor belt rather than making nigiri, sashimi, and sushi rolls to order. The problem he observed was that dishes stayed on the belt too long, losing freshness and becoming unappetizing.

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So when Allard and a partner opened their first kaiten-style Blue C Sushi restaurant in Seattle in 2003, they implemented a bar-code system that notified them when a plate had been on the conveyor more than 90 minutes, so they could remove it.

But that wasn’t good enough for Allard, a former technology entrepreneur. In 2006, following the lead of Wal-Mart, the Department of Defense, and other large enterprises, tiny Blue C Sushi installed RFID technology so it could precisely monitor which dishes people were buying, at what time of day, and how long they stayed on the conveyor belt.

The system, now running in two locations, consists of RFID tags made by 3M fixed on the bottom of each plate, Intermec RFID readers and antennas, Microsoft’s BizTalk RFID event processing platform, and Ebisu inventory management software from local integrator Kikata. RFID antennas are placed at the chefs’ cutting boards so they can designate which dish goes on which plate, and also around the conveyor belt to read tag information from the passing plates.

“They're beginning to see some nice operational payoff, building a database of time of day and year and what people want,” says Chris Kelly, Intermec director of RFID business development, who worked on the project. “They’re getting better demographics on consumption. It’s a novel use of the technology.”

Each chef has a touchscreen display to show what’s selling in real time, Kelly says. Moreover, Kelly adds, the system automates the billing process, resulting in fewer errors on customer’s checks and fewer unpaid bills.

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