Taka Tanaka - CEO of AUTEC
Taka Tanaka, the man behind the quest to revolutionize the sushi industry in the US began his career as a sales representative of AUTEC Japan, then established a demand in the U.S. market which turned the brand around by increasing overall revenues of more than 500%. This success lead to the founding of AUTEC USA, followed by the creation the company’s most popular sushi robot, ASM865A, a rice sheet maker for sushi rolls, sushi burrito, and the new concept omusando. Taka’s passion for innovation and developing solutions is furthered through participation in movements such as One Young World.
Sushi-making is considered an art. Yet, we are at a point where it has become so popular that mass production is inevitable. Can a normal customer tell the difference between a hand-made sushi roll and one produced by an AUTEC robot?
T.T: There is a time and place for our sushi robots. The concept behind our robots is a tool for chefs and businesses to use. It is not meant to take over an experience such as a sit down omakase but to elevate a business' kitchen operation to focus more on customer experience and business operations.
Based on client feedback, normal customers cannot tell the difference between sushi made by our robot and one that is hand-made. We believe this is because our sushi robots have been designed to produce (what is considered) the perfect sushi rice and formation. The condition of sushi rice is particularly important because the rice for sushi is the key part of the dish, so much so that traditionally it takes three years to learn how to make sushi rice. With our sushi robots, a novice chef can learn "how to" in about an hour.
Traditionally, chefs consider sushi rice to be perfect when maintained at body temperature and air level mixture is at a state where the sushi softly falls apart in the mouth. Through a data-driven and scientific approach to sushi making, we have developed our own measuring devices. The devices calculate the size, weight, shape, and stickiness of the sushi rice/mold and incorporate human taste tests so that our sushi robots produce the "perfect sushi" each time.
To a certain point, automation has become a necessity in the food industry to address the required levels of quality control, production speed, labor shortages and overall profitability. Yet, many operators, especially small businesses, are hesitant to make the big financial investment. What is the feedback you are getting from the market?
T.T: We understand that purchasing a sushi robot can be a financial hurdle for small businesses. In response, we have developed a leasing program to help those businesses (U.S. only) acquire a sushi robot as we genuinely think it will benefit their operations. In fact, we have received feedback - from those who were initially hesitant - that due to the incorporation of sushi robots, their operations have increased in output, therefore sales growth. Some businesses have even opened additional locations due to the success of their operations.
With the pandemic's unprecedented times, we have also learned that more businesses are pivoting towards automation. This change has been generated from two things due to the pandemic. One, the pandemic has taken a restaurant's ability to use the hospitality aspect of their service as one of their selling points; thus, many are looking to pivot their operations. Two, countless businesses are suffering from financial loss due to the pandemic. What used to be the reason for purchasing a sushi robot – reduced labor costs – has now become a means for survival.
At AUTEC, we have been doing everything we can to support these businesses through programs such as our leasing program as well as trial programs where potential clients can try our sushi robots for a week or rent one if longer (U.S. and Canada only)
What type of businesses are you mostly supplying your machines to?
T.T: We supply our sushi robots to:
o Restaurants across the board - traditional, fast-casual, food trucks, fine dining, chain
o Grocery stores - Asian, American, Kosher, healthy, high end
o Educational institutions colleges, primary and secondary schools
o Mass production facilities - grocery stores, cruise ships
o Catering companies
o Ghost Kitchens - Recently we have experienced an increase in ghost kitchen facilities.
Geographically speaking, where have your robots been best accepted by the market?
T.T: Businesses and diners in major cities seem to accept the rise of automation, therefore approve of our sushi robots. However, with the pandemic, we are experiencing an increase in suburban areas where small businesses are receiving an influx of takeout and delivery orders than pre-pandemic. We feel this is due to restaurants' unfortunate closings, and diners' choices in those areas have become limited.
What is your vision for the future of AUTEC?
T.T: We look to continue this journey of spreading affordable, high-quality sushi worldwide through our sushi robots, but with a heightened focus on those playing an integral role with our robots. For the past twenty years, our sushi robots have been our primary focus, not the chefs and owners who utilize our robots or our team members that create and sell them. As much as automation is essential to further the global spread of sushi cuisine, we think it is also important to communicate that without the "human touch," the robots wouldn't exist or operate.
We have been working to create an environment that brings those people to the forefront, together with our sushi robots, through programs such as the Chef Ambassador Program, which fosters recipe collaboration, and the Client Relation Program, which includes a marketing partnership that highlights the efforts behind businesses.
We envision the future AUTEC to continue these movements and further our sushi robots' capabilities with technological advancements.