Alumnus rolls out tech for revolving sushi restaurant

Travis LaCoss

Phil Nguyen ’15 (computer science) is the technical mastermind behind Rochester’s first conveyor belt sushi restaurant, Umai Revolving Sushi.

Phil Nguyen ’15 (computer science) is accustomed to rolling out the latest software updates. Now, he’s rolling out delicious food as co-owner of Umai Revolving Sushi.

Umai—which means “delicious” in Japanese—is the first conveyor belt sushi restaurant in the Rochester area. When customers come in, they don’t have to wait for a server to order—they can conveniently grab plates of sushi and other Asian specialties as they pass by on a rotating track that circulates through the restaurant.

Nguyen opened the 60-seat establishment with his longtime friend and serial restaurant entrepreneur Sean Zeng in December 2022.

After his friend pitched several business ideas, Nguyen found that this was one he could contribute to and make more efficient.

“I’m not the food expert in this business—I’m the tech person,” said Nguyen. “But, while the automation may be an initial draw for customers, I think that the personal touch is what will keep people coming back.”

Most of the restaurant’s hardware and software were developed by Nguyen, including a custom automatic plate counting system.

At other rotation sushi restaurants, the food is typically placed on different sized or colored dishes, each representing a certain price point or category of sushi. At the end of the meal, servers must manually tally up the bill based on the plates.

“We thought that was inefficient and boring work to do, so I wanted to make it automatic,” said Nguyen. “The efficiency of this restaurant actually allows our staff to spend more time interacting with customers and making sure they enjoy the meal.”

His system uses QR codes and scanners that are linked with each table to automatically detect when and where a plate is picked up by a customer. Nguyen said that he designed multiple iterations of the
original QR scanning concept to get it right.

“We would make some changes and test it overnight,” said Nguyen. “Then we’d continue to make more changes and test until we were happy with its reliability.”

At each table, customers can use a tablet to select made-to-order items. Nguyen developed the user interface for those tablets and integration for the restaurant’s point-of-sale system.

Nguyen still has a day job in tech. He works as a lead software engineer at Rochester Software Associates, creating software solutions for the digital production print market. He said that both jobs give him an opportunity to solve new problems.

At Umai, Nguyen is already experimenting with adding computer vision as a way to improve his custom plate counting system.

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