The hybrid concept Junkichi Robata Izakaya is scheduled to debut in Seattle in April 15 with a chatty guest-facing robot and the backing of a company determined to grow authentic Japanese restaurant chains in the U.S.
Junkichi will serve as both a robata concept with a menu built around foods grilled over carbon-charcoal binchotan, as well as a gastropub-like neighborhood izakaya, with tapas-like dishes, cocktails, beer, wine and a wide selection of sake.
It was developed by Bellevue, Wash.-based Plenty USA Inc., which is also a franchisee of the Hokkaido Ramen Santouka chain with roughly 15 units across the U.S., many of them in Mitsuwa Marketplace Japanese grocery stores.
Junkichi, meanwhile, is the first concept developed in the U.S. by Plenty USA, said Edward Wintermyer, the restaurant’s manager. If the concept does well, the group intends to franchise the brand, he said.
The 45- to 55-seat restaurant has a fully open floorplan — not just a window or view into the kitchen, said Wintermyer.
“This is a very wide-open space, and at the counter top to the kitchen will be chefs stationed at a sushi and sashimi station. At a robata station in the center of the room, we’ll have a roughly 10-foot display of fresh ingredients” where the chef will grill, he said.
Selections might include locally sourced ingredients like live scallops or oysters on the half shell, wagyu beef, organic free-range chicken and lamb, and sausages from Seattle’s Bavarian Meats, a popular local icon in Pike Place Market, said Wintermyer.
“The focus is on fresh, high quality and local,” he said. “It’s interactive.”
Prices will be approachable, he added, with tapas between $6 and $15 and full meals ranging from $12 to $35.
The restaurant in Seattle will feature an artificially intelligent robot named Sota (rendering at left), Plenty USA tested an earlier iteration as a host at a Santouka Ramen location in Seattle.
The new-and-improved Sota sits on table tops and is designed to interact with customers — though it doesn’t have a mind of its own.
The robot has face-recognition technology, so it can remember repeat guests. And customers can use a smartphone app to make Sota speak or servers can use Microsoft Azure’s Text to Speech service to guide Sota in conversation with guests, said Wintermyer.
“We could easily spot a low beverage from a distance and prompt Sota to ask the guest if they’d like another, or vice versa,” said Wintermyer. “It can facilitate any needs the guest has. And it’s sheer entertainment. It’s absolutely fun for guests to interact with.”
Growth plans for Junkichi, meanwhile, will depend on how the first unit goes, Wintermyer said.
“We like to say the future is very bright and would hope to see Junkichi in popular markets where authentic Japanese cuisine isn’t necessarily represented,” he said.
Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected]
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