Tales from the Sushi Carousel

As I entered the place, I recognized it immediately – although I’d never been there before.

An inner island housed minimum wage workers whose only job was to create cheap Nigiri, Maki, and Gunkan. Once made, each sushi would be placed upon a color coded plate. These plates were then placed upon a conveyor belt that slowly whirred around the outer edge of the island. Hungry patrons could then pick and choose from the revolving buffet without once leaving their seats.

I’ve seen these places throughout the west coast (tho’ not so much on the east coast, although they likely exit there as well). Sometimes the sushis comes on a conveyor belt, other times on flat cars of a model train set. In Chinatown in San Francisco, I’ve seen haphazardly-made sushi placed upon rotating boats.

The novelty of these types of places are interesting for about, oh, the time it takes for a person to have seat, grab a plate, and bite into a piece of sushi. Typically the quality of the sushi runs spectrum from marginal to horrible. It’s not as bad as supermarket sushi, but they’re never as good as the place where “omakase” is an understood concept.

So why go to these places? Because they provide an excellent place to people watch where one can watch and discover new and unique ways that people interact with food and their fellow consumers.

For example, there are generally two ways people collect their food off of the conveyor belt. In the first group, you have the “Hurry up and wait!” (henceforth called the HuaW people) people. These guys will wait several minutes for the perfect plate of sushi to come by, grab one plate, and devour the two pieces of sushi in less than thirty seconds, and then wait several more minutes, again waiting for that perfect plate of sushi.

The second group of people are “The Horders”. These people sit down and grab the first ten plates they see, regardless of quality. Inevitably the “horders” will unwittingly grab the one perfect plate of sushi that the person four seats further down the bar had been waiting ten minutes.

It is the above scenario that leads to conflict amongst patrons, something that happens rarely in the restaurant world these days.

Now having had their sushi stolen from their grasp by the horder, the Huaw becomes more vigilant in acquiring their desired piece of sushi. They start watching the people behind the bar, looking for any clue of what type of sushi is being made, and where it might be placed upon conveyor belt.

There! Look! The HuaW is in luck because the sushi workers have made tempura rolls! However, the rolls have been placed upon the other side of the bar and have to roll by the horder in order for the HuaW to be able to claim their prize.

Unfortunately what the HuaW does not know is that the horder belongs to a another species found in the Sushi buffet environment – the competitor. The competitor is typically male and arrives in packs of two. Their desired goal? To eat as many plates of sushi as possible. The problem? Their partner has the same desired goal, and seeks to subtly humiliate the first competitor.

The Huaw sits and watches the tempura roll make its way around the island. They look at the plates of sushi remaining to be eaten by the horder and determines that by the time the roll passes by, the horder will still have two pieces of unagi and a spicy tuna roll to complete.

This is the fatal flaw in the Huaw’s logic. For a horder does not think like a Huaw. They don’t have to finish what’s in front of them in order to pick up another plate or five. As the tempura roll makes its way in front of the horder, he scoops it up (along with four other plates) and places it in front of him. Because deep fried pieces of sushi are highly sought after amongst the patrons.

The Huaw is humiliated and learns a valuable lesson. A person can’t always get what they want. The lesson is a small consolation as the Huaw picks up a plate of inoffensive cucumber rolls. Dunking the rolls in soy sauce, they think to themselves that next time they should sit closer to the interior sushi workstations.

Setting the plate side, the Huaw sits and contemplates which type of sushi would make the perfect “last plate” before they head back to work. They spy deep fried crab being delivered to the sushi workers. Jackpot! Spider Rolls!

But the question remains the same – how to get one before the horder?