Rotary sushi is relatively new to the United States, but it has a 50-year history in Japan. Yoshiaki Shiraishi opened the world's first rotary restaurant, or kaiten, in 1958, after a tour of a factory assembly line inspired him to install a conveyor belt in his Osaka restaurant. His innovation quite literally revolutionized Japan's sushi scene, cutting labor costs and speeding up service. Hundreds of kaiten have proliferated across Japan in recent decades, and dozens more have opened in Europe and the United States. At least 12 are currently operating across the New York City and Los Angeles metro areas, and soon two will be up and running within Chicago city limits too.
Wabi Sabi, a BYOB sushi bar located at 4521 N. Sheridan Road, is the city of Chicago's first kaiten after opening in November 2016 in Uptown. A single horseshoe-shaped conveyor belt dominates the small restaurant. Mod white banquettes ring the perimeter of the belt, giving diners ample opportunity to ogle the chefs' creations—color-coded by price—as they glide past their tables.
The city's second will be Sushi Plus, an expansion of a suburban Aurora-area restaurant with the same name that's slated to open in Lakeview in spring 2017. The restaurant, which will replace the shuttered Five Guys burger location at 3219 N. Broadway St., will feature two robotic trains delivering rolls to diners and table-side touchscreens that guests will use to place custom orders. General manager Marina Phetchanpheng confirmed that all of the menu options available in Aurora will be available in Lakeview too — at the same price points. Much like Wabi Sabi, Sushi Plus will serve traditional nigiri and maki alongside more Americanized offerings, including the "Wild Wild Maki," which is a "sweet and sassy" roll stuffed with white tuna and tempura flakes that's topped with spicy crab meat, strawberries, and mango sauce.
Phetchanpheng is confident that the restaurant's city outpost will do well. "We've seen exponential growth at our Aurora location," she said. "And we'll be able to reach even more people in Lakeview."
Wabi Sabi and Sushi Plus could be considered part of a larger trend toward automation in Chicago, bolstered by other high-tech offerings like the 24-hour "cupcake ATM" that Los Angeles-based bakery Sprinkles installed at 50 E. Walton St. in 2012. Or the city's first pour-all-your-own-beer bar, Tapster, which opened at 2027 W. North Ave. in Wicker Park earlier in March.
As its name suggests, Tapster boasts an impressive tap list—32 beers and 8 wines, plus draft cocktails, sodas, and cold brew coffee. But visitors don't need to wait in long lines or worry about attracting their bartender's attention to get a drink: they pour their own. The taps, which are installed along a long wall of the bar's art-filled interior, come equipped with touchscreens. Visitors place "tapcards" into slots near the touchscreens and pour their drink of choice. At the end of the night, they cash in their tapcards and pay up.
A similarly tech-savvy wine bar opened at 1400 S. Michigan Ave. in 2012: Square One touts itself as a "drinker's bar" with local beers and craft cocktails, but its biggest selling point is its self-service wine station, which features 10 varieties of wine. And Tapster co-owner Roman Maliszewski believes that more bars will soon be tapping into the pour-your-own-drink trend. Navigator Taproom, for one, is slated to open at 2211 N. Milwaukee Ave. in Logan Square in June. "There's a clear demand for this sort of bar," Maliszewski said. "It's fun. It's interactive."
It's also a time-saver, something that Luke Saunders, the CEO of Farmer's Fridge, believes is driving much of the current trend toward automation. In 2013, Saunders was working long hours in sales. His job took him to food manufacturing factories throughout the Midwest—sometimes as many as 12 a week—and he often struggled to find fast, affordable places where he could eat healthy meals on the road. So he decided to create Farmer's Fridge, a network of automated restaurants stocked daily with fresh salads and other veggie-centric dishes. To date, in the four years since Saunders' founding, the company has installed about 70 refrigerators across Chicago. And Saunders doesn't think the company will stop expanding any time soon. "We opened three locations last week," he said. "We're filling a new niche. Customers can skip lines, walk right up to the fridge, and get exactly what they need."
Some fear that a trend toward automation could cost workers jobs. But Maliszewski doesn't see it that way. "I'm not replacing anyone," he said. "I'm creating something new." Recent job reports seem to bear that out too. According to the US Bureau of Labor, the food service sector continues to see significant job growth each year, a trend that isn't likely to change any time soon, especially given that, even as automated restaurants and bars spring up around the country, slow food continues to thrive.
Many of Chicago's most popular restaurants are reminders that patrons are willing to pay a premium for labor-intensive products. Think of Jeni's small-batch ice cream or the Publican's hand-cured jerky. Many diners aren't just attracted to those products because they like the way they taste — they also appreciate the time and care that went into their production. They want the convenience of automation when they're in a hurry, the fun of spinning sushi and mechanized bars, but they appreciate a more personal touch too.
Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams founder, Jeni Britton Bauer, agrees. "Our model for making ice cream combines the values of the artisan food world—quality, craftsmanship, and community—with 21st century tools, technology, and innovation," she said. "For us, it's about the mixture of art (or craft) and science to make ice creams that spark conversations and bring people together."
In other words, the city may soon see dining options that are equal parts high- and low-tech. Sushi-slinging robots and hand-brewed sake; artisanal pizza and automated beer; served in the same restaurant or bar. Even if an invention like the Jetson's "Food-a-Rac-a-Cycle" is still a few years away, Chicagoans can at least console themselves with the knowledge that they can purchase a freshly made salad or cupcake from an automated restaurant, hail a cab from their phone, and head to a mechanized bar. The future is finally now.