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Rise of the sushi machine: how robotics is helping promote Japanese cuisine globally

Interview - July 23, 2021

Conveyor belt sushi restaurants in Japan have long embraced robotics to boost turnover. Today, Suzumo Machinery is on a cultural mission to promote restaurant automation and Japanese cuisine worldwide. We speak with president, Minako Suzuki, who gives her valuable insight into Japanese food culture and explains more about Suzumo’s role in the global promotion of Japanese cuisine through its high-quality machinery.

MINAKO SUZUKI, PRESIDENT OF SUZUMO MACHINERY COMPANY LIMITED
MINAKO SUZUKI | PRESIDENT OF SUZUMO MACHINERY COMPANY LIMITED

While most of the world is familiar with other cuisines like those of France, Italy or China, people around the world remain largely unfamiliar with Japanese cuisine in all its forms despite its recent boom. As a company that strives to bring authentic Japanese food to the rest of the world, could you give us an overview of Japanese cuisine?

Washoku is the collective term in Japanese for the cuisine that originates from this island nation. From preparation to presentation, this gastronomic experience is steeped in tradition and offers a surprisingly insightful introduction to the Japanese culture and way of life. For its importance to Japanese cultural identity, Washoku was recognized as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2013.

Furthermore, Japan is a food-obsessed country where the national cuisine uniquely reflects the natural environment, regional diversity, and underlying value system of this resilient country. Japanese food, especially the traditional diet of fish, vegetables, fermented foods and rice, is defined by both its healthy properties and overall quality.

It is important for Washoku to feel deliciousness with five senses - sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing. It is not judged only by taste but by total senses - feeling happiness and the season by beautiful appearance, chewing feelings and a delicious smell.

 

How did rice become the cornerstone of Japanese food culture?

The rice-centered food culture of Japan evolved following the introduction of wet rice cultivation in Asia more than 2,000 years ago. The tradition of rice served with seasonal vegetables and fish and other marine products reached a highly sophisticated form in the Edo period (1600-1868) and remains the vibrant core of native Japanese cuisine.

 

The global rise in popularity of health consciousness and food culture has attracted further interest in the dietary habits of Japan. In fact, the number of restaurants serving Japanese cuisine overseas has jumped about 30% in two years, from 118,000 to 156,000 thanks in large part to an expanding Asian middle class and the increased demand of Japanese food in North America, the second-largest market. Could you tell us the reason for this boom in Japanese cuisine globally?

Japanese food is popular as a type of “healthy food”. The global Japanese food boom started with sushi, which spread throughout the U.S. due to a health-conscious trend in the 1970s and then continued on to Europe and the rest of the world. The sudden rise in popularity of Japanese food overseas underwent qualitative changes over time, and eventually people began to demand more “genuine” Japanese food.

As national income reached a certain level and as daily diets became more varied, a “health consciousness” began to grow. The characteristics of sushi fit in perfectly with that, triggering the first wave of the Japanese food boom. Sushi had led to the pioneer days of the Japanese food boom, and sushi, particularly sushi rolls, came to be sold at supermarkets and other retail shops. Sushi continued to garner mass appeal with the appearance of conveyor belt sushi restaurants, and local consumer understanding of sushi deepened. It was a period that saw an increase in sushi restaurants that were better suited to the lifestyle of the local consumers, accelerating sushi’s integration into ordinary life.

 

Being a global company, how do you plan to take advantage of this growth?

The global rise in health consciousness and foodie culture has attracted further interest in the dietary habits of Japan. And yet, the fact remains, that while most of the world is familiar with other cuisines – like those of France or China – people around the world remain largely unfamiliar with the wealth of Japanese cuisine in all of its forms. Furthermore, it can be hard to find good sushi in countries that have few properly trained sushi chefs. Our goal is to position Japanese food as a truly cross-cultural staple of the global diet. We dream that one day everyone in the world will be able to enjoy authentic Japanese food, as of now only available in Japan. For this reason, we at Suzumo see it as our mission to make our technology and know-how available to everyone in the business of serving sushi or Japanese cuisine.

 

People throughout the world are now familiar with sushi. Now, whenever someone speaks of “Japanese cuisine”, the first thing that comes to mind is “sushi.” In fact, the sushi restaurants market size will grow by USD 6.40 billion during 2018-2022.  How do you plan to support the new sushi restaurants in overseas markets?

Suzumo offers a range of equipment used to process cooked rice, but our mainstay is the sushi robot, which automates the preparation of sushi rice balls or “sharidama,” turning out up to 80 pieces a minute. Sharidama – which are traditionally prepared by a dedicated sushi chef – are bite-size rice balls made of cooked rice flavored with vinegar. The major buyers of the sushi robot include sushi chains and supermarkets. In addition, the company also sells robots for making sushi rolls, sushi rice and other rice products.

Therefore, our goal is to increase our market share overseas by introducing our machinery to Japanese restaurants overseas via our network of local distributors. We have a subsidiary company – Suzumo Singapore Corporation PTE. LTD. with a sales office in Singapore to cover South East Asia and also another subsidiary company – Suzumo International Corporation with two sales offices in the U.S.A. to cover North America. We also have contracts with local distributors in the regions that give it a presence in most of the  major cities.

 

Suzumo was founded in 1961. Could you run us through the history of your company?

Originally the company was involved in the production of Japanese confectionery equipment. Then, in 1977 the founder, Kisaku Suzuki, was concerned by the Japanese government’s move to reduce land for growing rice, and began developing a cooked rice processing machine to increase rice consumption. As sushi was a luxury item then, Suzuki thought of automating part of the preparation process to lower costs and make sushi more affordable to the public. In 1981 Suzumo launched Japan’s first automated machine to produce sharidama (sushi rice balls) in large quantities. These machines and their derivatives, which came to be known as sushi robots, have henceforth been installed at nearly all major sushi chains, and are credited with opening the door for the expansion of these restaurants.

The company also moved on to strengthen its product lineup with additional machinery such as the wooden-bowl type sushi robot which resembles the traditional ‘Ohitsu’ wooden bowl with which sushi had been made. This product hit the market in 1999 and was followed in 2003 by “Fuwarica” – otherwise known as the ‘shariben robot’, which dishes up rice into a ball automatically. That same year Suzumo was listed on the JASDAQ stock exchange and since then we have formed new partnerships and opened new offices overseas.

 

As the innovator that created the world's first sushi robot, Suzumo has worked to support its customers' efforts in the food business and raise awareness around the world about the delights of Japanese food culture. Could you give us an overview of your products? Do you have any upcoming products that you would like to share with us?

Our product line-up ranges across 70 models, from compact machines to high-speed large ones for mass production, including sushi robots and other models that produce or serve sushi, onigiri, norimaki, inari-zushi and rice burgers with the consummate technique of a professional sushi chef.

Alongside our sushi robots, another product line that is becoming a big-seller for the company is “Fuwarica” rice-serving machine, which automatically dispenses a fixed amount of cooked rice into bowls or onto plates, keeping the fluffy texture of the rice intact.

 

With over 60 years of experience bringing Japanese cuisine to the world. Could you please share with us your mid-term strategy for continuing your corporate growth?

We believe that Washoku will globally keep spreading more as one of the important cuisine cultures. The most important mission for Suzumo is to make people in the world enjoy Japanese rice cuisine, represented by sushi handy, healthy, hygienically, and of course, in a delicious way. Even Sushi, one of the representative Japanese cuisine, has not yet been understood very well.

In Europe and North America, sushi has to be kept at a low temperature in the logistics process in order to comply with food safety management principles although sushi is the most delicious when it is eaten as soon as it is made. We are supporting how to make it in shops, restaurants and supermarkets in a fresh way in order for people to experience fresh and delicious sushi more.

For other Japanese rice cuisine, for example, “Onigiri” (Japanese rice ball), which is typical and traditional fast food in Japan, is becoming more popular in Asia and easier to be purchased in small shops there, and in Europe, people start being aware of it but it is still very minor cuisine.

“Onigiri” can be formed with any various local food loved at each region.

There are also other cuisine such as rice burger than sushi and onigiri, and we also would like to spread other Japanese rice cuisine in the world.

We expect more original Japanese restaurant chain and shops will be spread from Japan to the world, and Suzumo will support them to keep genuine quality of Japanese rice cuisine at any place.

We will not only install our machines there but also support them for operation and menu at restaurants and shops with our expertise built by our long term business experience in Japan and also outside of Japan.

 

If we come back in 3-4 years to interview you all over again, what would you like to tell us? What are your dreams and goals for the company?

For our 65th anniversary, we would like to be able to say that we took the company to a new level in terms of increasing the awareness of Japanese food worldwide through our creativity. We would like more people to enjoy Japanese rice cuisine including Sushi with fresh, delicious and hygienic quality. Furthermore, we would like to develop a new business based on the customer’s needs in the world. For example, developing a machine to replicate the rice cuisine existed at each country and local society. We are always open to new ‘rice’ culture and opportunities all around the world.

 

Thank you very much.

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