Do Diners Dream of Tipping Robots?

As robots and conveyor belts draw crowds to Kura Sushi in Rittenhouse, gratuity for the humans powering the place is hardly a sure thing.

The conveyor belt at Kura Sushi in Rittenhouse. / Photography by Laura Swartz

Every night at 1721 Chestnut Street, Kur-B the robot gets plugged back into the wall and shuts down to slumber. Twelve hours later Kur-B will wake up with the push of a button, its rounded cartoon eyes regenerating for a new day of carrying drinks to customers and roaming the dining room with a speaker that plays mildly vexing jingles.

Kur-B is one of two robots at Kura Sushi, the new sushi chain restaurant where diners grab plates of maki and nigiri from a conveyor belt in front of their tables. (In case you were wondering, Kur-B’s droid co-worker also goes by the name Kur-B. This might be confusing if not for the fact that the two only see each other when it’s time to plug in for the night.)

Between Kur-B and a self-serve ordering system, Kura Sushi has become a destination for technological delights. The restaurant currently operates 45 locations in the United States, with about a dozen more on the way. In Philly specifically, wait times can be as long as four hours on weeknights.

Meet Kur-B.

“It’s always hype. It’s always excitement,” Kura Sushi manager Nikita Thomas says when describing diners’ reactions to the restaurant’s automated elements. “Everybody is like ‘Wow, the food is coming directly to the table.’ When Kur-B is going by, everybody’s eyes are on Kur-B trying to see what he has going on.”

Kur-B and the conveyor belt, of course, aren’t really hosting the party at Kura Sushi. The restaurant employs around 40 staff members, with eight people in the kitchen and six or seven on the floor at any given time. Tips are pooled and then split among the entire staff — back of house and front of house — though Thomas says gratuity is never a sure thing.

Unless Thomas and her team make a distinct effort to check on tables and interact with guests, she says she assumes diners will tip less than 20 percent of their final bill. “It just depends on how often you’re going by a table.”

Once diners finish 15 plates of sushi at Kura, they receive a prize.

The average bill at Kura’s Chestnut Street location lands in the $60 range, which equates to 15 plates of $4 sushi. It’s worth noting that the restaurant is designed so that diners deposit their empty plates in the slot in front of the table. After you enter 15 clean plates into the slot, a prize ball will shoot out of a slide below the monitor. And, if you’re lucky, you’ll get a branded Kura Sushi lanyard rather than a branded Kura Sushi pin.

There’s precedent for the tipping conversation at Kura. Four years ago, a manager from Kura Sushi’s location in Doraville, Georgia wrote on Yelp that “Tipping is not required, but it is an option. … Yes our system is pretty much self service, but the food that is on the conveyor belt & sent on the express lane is prepared by our kitchen.”

Other than preparing the food and drinks, there are tasks at Kura Sushi that conveyor belts and Kur-B the robot simply cannot accomplish without their living, breathing co-workers. Servers must refill glasses and bus tables, for example. If a diner orders a beer from the monitor above the conveyor belt, a staff member must deliver the alcohol to the table. (Kur-B cannot check IDs.) At the end of the meal, a server will bring over the bill to the table.

Plates of sushi at Kura.

Thomas assures me that the average tip percentage in Philly has been “pretty good.” Thomas is in a particularly unique position to compare tipping habits, since she travels around from one new Kura Sushi location to the next, training team members and helping to get new locations off on the right foot. Recently she’s spent time in Edison, New Jersey, and Schaumburg, Illinois. In two weeks, she’ll transfer to Buford, Georgia.

When Thomas’s team at Kura Sushi in Philly is short staffed — when people call out sick, for instance, which has been happening frequently during the winter months — they can’t interact with all 33 tables in the restaurant in the ways they’d like to. In these cases, Thomas says diners will tip something like five dollars.

“Technology is already winning. The best thing to do is stop by, show a friendly face, give a great personality, have conversations.”