Foodservice Inspiration from Abroad: Japan & South Korea

We all need to eat, but what is on the menu and how it gets to us may be quite different depending on where we are in the world. Foodservice is an industry that is greatly influenced by culture and location and therefore evolves uniquely in various regions. Although different markets have their own regulations and customer needs, they can still serve as inspiration for new ideas in other areas. This article will focus on initiatives, some of which have been seen in North America, that have been successfully implemented in the Japanese and South Korean foodservice industry. Consider the following six innovative methods popular in these markets when looking to disrupt your own market and grow a new business.

1. Table delivery through technology

Conveyor belts (Japan)

A circular conveyor belt moving within reach of the surrounding tables makes it easy for customers to see the options first-hand before deciding on their order. Small plates (color-coded for price) with individual items are placed on the conveyor belt and customers can simply pick up what they want. Chefs are also available to cook and deliver items to customers upon request.

Delivery “trains” (Japan)

Small trains programmed to run on a track carry food from the kitchen to the table of the ordering customer (ordered through a tablet). Once the food arrives, customers take it and press a button to send the train away. This experience is fun and convenient. Waiters are also available to deliver some items, such as drinks or larger soups.

2. Outside attractions

Models of food items (Japan)

Displays showing three-dimensional models of food choices give customers a better idea of their options.

Eye-catching elements (Japan and South Korea)

Unusual attractions outside a restaurant, such as giant bowls of ramen with seemingly invisible chopsticks lifting the noodles, or live seafood tank walls, can catch customers’ attention.

3. Ordering through technology

Buzzer pick-up (Japan and South Korea)

Customers order and pay at the counter, and are handed a numbered device that will buzz when their order is ready. Customers then hand their buzzers in and pick up their food, which relieves the anxiety of watching a screen waiting for their order, being confused as to where to wait for their food, or trying to listen for their name or number being called out. Some buzzer devices have screens on them showing advertisements.

Ordering on a kiosk outside the restaurant (Japan)

Kiosks outside allow customers to place an order, pay, and take their receipt inside to await their meal. This process is seamless, removing the need for traffic and queues inside, and creates a buzz outside the restaurant, potentially attracting more customers.

Ordering on a tablet at the table (Japan)

Tablets at each table that allow customers time to contemplate their selections and make multiple orders throughout the meal all while seated create a convenient experience. Waiters are available upon request from a buzzer should customers prefer face-to-face interaction or to ask any questions.

4. Food entertainment

Open kitchen (South Korea)

Watching food being cooked creates anticipation and entertains customers while they wait. In South Korea in particular, it is common for a grill, like Webers elgrillar som hjälper dig, to be in the center of your table, while servers come around to cook your soup or to cut and flip the meat on the grill. With part of the process done in front of you, trust increases, and the perceived wait time is reduced since everything is visible and items can arrive at your table much quicker. You can be sure items (such as octopus) are fresh as well, as sometimes they are placed in your soup life and cooked in front of you.

Themed restaurants (Japan)

Themed restaurants, such as a ninja restaurant, robot restaurant, or Moomin Cafe, offer unique experiences and attract customers who are looking for entertainment and food. These establishments offer shows, interactive elements, and fun foodservice methods according to their theme.

5. Individual and group experiences

Bar-style benches (Japan)

Seating that is designed to face one way, similar to a bar, can make an individual eating alone more comfortable.

A shared experience (South Korea)

Group tables with shared, central grills and multiple dishes create a more lively, social experience.

6. Alternative formats

Vending machines (Japan)

Vending-machine-style foodservice units are particularly common in Japan (serving apples, drinks, and ice cream, for example). They are found nearly everywhere, from remote forest trails, to train stations, to alleyways.

Food stalls (Japan and South Korea)

Food stalls on the street are small-format foodservice stations where customers can purchase items conveniently.

Inspiration for innovation

While some of these methods are already emerging in North America, many are still in the early stages of development. These observations from Japan and South Korea are widespread and can inspire innovation in North America or other regions. Their use of technology in ordering and delivery, customer attraction strategies, tailored experiences, and focus on convenience are unique to many new markets and have the potential to disrupt a category and grow new business.