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Sushi à la RFID

Blue C, a Seattle sushi chain, deployed an RFID system to keep the food that revolves through its restaurants fresh and optimize its operations.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Oct 22, 2007—Kaiten sushi—a fast-food craze that originated in Japan, also called "conveyor-belt sushi," "sushi-go-round" and "sushi train"—is starting to gain a foothold in the United States. The concept is simple: Sushi chefs prepare batches of popular sushi dishes, place some items on individual plates and put those plates on a conveyor belt that winds through the restaurant. Customers can then choose what they'd like to eat from the steady stream of plates passing their table or counter seat.

When James Allard and his partner, Steve Rosen, were planning their first kaiten sushi restaurant—Blue C Sushi, which opened in Seattle in 2003—they knew the key to success would be making sure they served their customers only fresh sushi. Some kaiten sushi restaurants use an automated bar-code system to inform staff when it's time to remove a plate from the conveyor belt. Scanners mounted under the conveyor read the unique number encoded to the bar-code sticker at the base of each plate, and software linked to the scanner triggers an alert, indicating when a plate is still being read after, say, an hour.

Allard, a former technology entrepreneur and employee of Microsoft, believed RFID could not only be used to ensure freshness but also help the restaurant with its ordering and inventory systems, and automate the process of tallying up customers' bills. "We knew we wanted RFID," says Allard, "but out of the gate it was too expensive."

So when Allard and Rosen opened their first Blue C restaurant in the city's University district—a second RFID-enabled restaurant in the Fremont neighborhood—they used a bar-code system that triggered a flashing "time's-up" alert, telling chefs when to remove plates from the conveyor belt. But the bar-code system could not capture useful operational data, Allard says—such as what item was on each plate or which chef had prepared it—because it would have been too time-consuming for the chefs to scan the bar code on each plate before loading it with sushi.
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