Conveyor belt sushi whets growing consumer appetite for fun “experiences.”
Good service is vital to a restaurant’s success, but at Wasabi Sushi you won’t find traditional waiters or waitresses. Instead, you’ll serve yourself spicy tuna or California rolls by grabbing a plate from a conveyor belt that delivers food throughout the dining area.
“Our sushi concept is substantially different,” says Bo Davis, president of Wasabi Sushi, headquartered in Washington D.C. “In addition to the conveyor belt system, we’re located in common areas of large regional malls, and we ‘float’ in the hallways of center courts.”
While Wasabi Sushi is unique in the United States, conveyor- belt sushi isn’t new. The idea originated in Japan in the 1950s as a fast food idea. Davis says thousands of these places existed, selling low-quality sushi at a high volume. In the ’90s, European restaurateurs borrowed the concept, with a more upscale atmosphere and higher pricing.
Davis was living in London in 2005 when he saw the concept for the first time. Having sold his software company in 2002 for $9.6 million, Davis says he was looking for something new. He hired an executive chef and brought the idea to the United States.
Davis launched the first Wasabi Sushi conveyor belt restaurant in a traditional retail space in Washington, D.C., near the White House in 2006. Over the next three years, he opened a few non-conveyor belt sushi locations. Then he tried his first mall location —Tyson’s Corner Center in McLean, Virginia, in 2009.
“It was insane,” Davis recalls. “People really liked it. We spent the next year regrouping and decided to focus only on opening mall locations. We closed all other stores.”
Wasabi Sushi can be found in several large regional or super regional malls. Currently, the restaurant has one location in Virginia, two in Massachusetts, one in Florida and one in Texas. A sixth location is opening this fall in California, and more are planned for 2014.
Davis attributes the success to the energy the restaurants offer. “It’s like retail theater —you can see directly across the entire line of action,” he says. “There are no walls around our kitchen; customers watch the food being prepared.”
Food is put onto colorful plates and set on a lit conveyor belt that snakes through the restaurant. Each location is designed differently to fit into the mall atmosphere, and customers are seated by
a hostess. Diners are given menus that describe each of the 80 menu items, which include sushi as
well as hot food such as salmon, chicken and soup, and dessert. Menu items have a label, so you know what you’re getting.
Encouraging Experiences at the Mall
Novel experiences continue to drive shoppers to malls despite the prevalence of online shopping. In addition to shopping, seeking out fashion trends, eating at a restaurant and entertainment were among the most important reasons for going
“You just grab what looks good,” says Davis. Pricing is based on plate colors and ranges
from $2.50 to $5. Davis says the average ticket is $14. Beer, wine and sake are also available. While the customer directly picks the sushi off the belt, the restaurant is full-service, so a waiter attends to each customer by taking supplementary drink, hot food, and custom sushi orders, and, of course, tallies the bill.
Wasabi Sushi attracts a broad demographic. “A large segment of our customers is young families,” he says. “We have a lot of offerings for kids, such as PBJ rolls that look like sushi. Teens love us because it’s trendy and cool. And healthy eaters like us because we’re not typical fried mall food.”
Bo Davis, president of Wasabi Sushi, likens the concept to retail theater.
Wasabi Sushi, Davis says, complements what trendy shopping centers are offering. “They are attractions all to themselves,” he says. “Many offer an ice rink, movie theater, or a place like Dave and Busters.” Heads of mall leasing depart- ments like Wasabi Sushi because of the energy and excitement it adds to the common area, says Davis.
“It’s not uncommon to find people taking pictures,” he says. “We get plenty of ‘oohs and aahs’.”
For more information, please visit www.wasabisushi.com.