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SYSTEM AND METHOD FOR IDENTIFICATION AND TRACKING OF FOOD ITEMS
The present application is directed to methods and systems for identifying and tracking food items made available for consumption by consumers, e.g., as in a restaurant. In one implementation, methods and systems disclosed herein are used for managing the preparation and distribution of sushi in a kaiten sushi restaurant.
"Kaiten" is a Japanese word with an approximate English translation meaning "turns". It relates to the "turning" of a conveyor belt in the kaiten sushi dining experience. Kaiten sushi restaurants were first invented in the late 1950'sinJapan 15 where they created a new category of quick service sushi dining. In kaiten sushi restaurants, a conveyor belt winds its way around the restaurant, at some point closing the circle back onto itself. Typically, sushi chefs stand inside the belt and prepare assorted sushi and related dishes, which they then 20 put on small color-coded plates that are subsequently placed on the conveyor belt. The color coding relates to the price of the item on the plate. For example, sushi items on a green plate may cost $1.00, while sushi items on a yellow plate may cost $1.50 or on a light blue plate may cost $2.00, and so on. 2s These plates then travel around the circuit of the conveyor belt, full of sushi choices for the restaurant customers. Customers watch the plates go by and choose the ones they wish, taking the plates off the belt and thereby leaving an empty spot on the conveyor for the sushi chef to quickly fill with another plate of sushi.
At the end of a meal, a customer has a stack of individual plates that are subsequently tallied by a waiter/server (e.g., five green plates® 1.00+three yellow plates@$1.50=$9.50) and a bill is generated for the customer. Conveyor belt sushi has proven to be an innovative way of dining that has gained 35 significant popularity in Japan and is now making its way to the United States.
There are a number of operational challenges in a kaiten sushi environment. For example, an important part of a kaiten sushi operation is identifying for the customer the type of 40 sushi that is sitting on each individual plate that passes before them. To date, such forms of identification have been static, including either a structural ring system as found in U.S. patent application Ser. No. 11/485,843 (assigned to the assignee of the present application), a flag identifier as found 45 in U.S. Pat.No. 6,937,922, or identification stickers placed on the plates. What is needed is a method and system that dynamically shows customers what is on a particular sushi plate as it passes by on the conveyor belt.
At the end of a customer's meal, a server must tally up the plates of different colors and calculate the total bill for the customer. Frequently, a server will erroneously miscount the number of plates of a specific color (e.g., counting four green plates instead of five green plates, or counting three blue plates instead of two blue plates). This results in an incorrect tally of the overall bill to the customer. What is needed is a 55 method and system that improves and automates the tallying of plates for calculating the customer's bill in a quick, accurate, and efficient manner.
The present application addresses these needs as well as other shortcomings in existing food identification and distri- 60 bution systems, as for example used in a kaiten sushi restaurant.
the Detailed Description. This summary is not intended to identify key features of the claimed subject matter, nor is it intended to be used as an aid in determining the scope of the claimed subject matter.
Disclosed herein are various aspects of a food identification and tracking system constructed in accordance with the present invention. In one implementation, the system includes a plurality of containers, wherein each container is adapted to hold a food item. For example, as will be discussed below, a plurality of plates may be distributed to consumers by way of a conveyor system with food items placed on the plates. A plate is just one form of a container in the context of the present application.
The system further includes a plurality of identification tags, wherein each tag is affixed to one of the plurality of containers. The tags each have electronically-readable data stored thereon for identifying a food item being held by the respective container.
A conveyor is configured to convey the plurality of containers in a loop around a space, such as in a kaiten sushi restaurant. The containers are placed on the conveyor by the operator of the food identification and tracking system to offer the food items in the containers for consumption.
Lastly, one or more sensors are configured to electronically read the data stored on the tag of a container that is brought into proximity of the sensor. A display in communication with the sensor receives the identification of a food item in a container that has been brought into proximity of the sensor. The display thereafter displays the identification of the food item to consumers while the container is in proximity to the display. Consumers can select the food items they wish to consume by removing the containers from the conveyor as the food items pass by in front of them.
In another implementation, described herein is a food identification and tracking system comprising a plurality of containers, a sensor, and a processor associated with the sensor. As with the implementations discussed above, the containers each have an identification tag affixed thereto containing electronically-readable data. In this implementation, the data includes an indicator of the price of a food item placed in the container to which the tag is affixed. The food item is placed in the container for consumption on the premises of the operator of the food identification and tracking system.
Consumers select which food items they wish to eat and take the containers to a location on the premises where the food items are consumed. When a consumer has finished his or her meal, the sensor is used to tally the cost of all the food items consumed. More specifically, the sensor is configured to read the data stored in the tags of containers from which the consumer has consumed the food items. The data is communicated from the sensor to its associated processor. The processor is configured to receive the price of the food item and automatically calculate the total cost of the food item for payment by the consumer.
While the present application describes implementations of the system in a kaiten sushi restaurant, it should be understood that the system may be used in a wide variety of contexts in which food items are made available for selection and consumption by consumers.
DESCRIPTION OF THE DRAWINGS
The foregoing aspects and many of the attendant advantages of this invention will become more readily appreciated as the same become better understood by reference to the following detailed description, when taken in conjunction with the accompanying drawings, wherein:
FIG. 1 is an environmental view of a kaiten sushi restaurant using a method and system as disclosed in the present application;
FIG. 2 is a side cross-sectional view of a container, namely a plate, having an identification tag affixed thereto; 5
FIG. 3 is a block diagram of a food identification and tracking system including a conveyor with sensors and displays arranged to read and display data from identification tags affixed to containers traveling on the conveyor;
FIG. 4 is a block diagram of a portable sensor and associ- 10 ated processor for reading identification tags of containers from which food items have been consumed, allowing a tallying of the cost of the food items;
FIG. 5 is a flow diagram of a method of storing and reading data from a tag on a container which allows a display of an 15 identification of a food item placed in the container; and
FIG. 6 is a flow diagram of a method of reading data from one or more tags for calculating the total cost of food items consumed from the containers to which the tags are affixed.
FIG. 1 provides an environmental view of a restaurant using one example of a method and system as disclosed in the present application. In this particular, non-limiting example, 25 the restaurant is a kaiten sushi restaurant. Consumers 10 and 12 sit at a counter 14 as plates 16 containing various food items, such as sushi, pass by on a conveyor belt system 18. When a consumer 10, 12 desires a particular food item, the consumer 10, 12 removes the plate 16 containing the food 30 item from the conveyor belt system 18, for example as shown by plates 20, 22. If desired, each plate may be color coded to represent the price of the food item on the plate. When the consumer 10,12 finishes consuming various food items, the consumer retains the empty plates, for example as shown by 35 plates 24, 26. At the end of the consumer's meal, the cost of the food items consumed is tallied from the empty plates and a total cost is presented to the consumer for payment.
For purposes of illustration only, this implementation depicts the consumers 10,12 sitting at a counter 14. In other 40 implementations, consumers 10, 12 may sit at various tables or booths where they can consume the food items they have removed from the conveyor belt system 18. In a booth environment, the conveyor belt system 18 may be located so it is accessible by a consumer sitting at one end of the booth. It 45 should be appreciated that any seating arrangement is possible, so long at food items are visible to the members of a dining party and at least one member of the dining party can access the conveyor belt system 18 to remove desired food items. 50
In accordance with a further aspect, each of the plates 16 (as well as the plates 20, 22, 24, 26) shown in FIG. 1 have an identification tag 30 affixed thereto, an example of which is illustrated in FIG. 2. Typically, the identification tags 30 are affixed to the bottom or a side of the plates 16 so as to be 55 unobtrusive and generally unseen in the course of serving food items to the consumers 10, 12. Preferably, the tags are permanently affixed to the plates, such that the tags can withstand daily use of the plates in a restaurant where the plates are subjected to regular cycles of washing in hot water. In one 60 particular implementation, an adhesive known as 7871 coater manufactured by 3M has been found to be suitable for this purpose.
The identification tags 30 each have electronically-readable data stored thereon for identifying food items being held 65 by the respective plates 16 to which the tags are affixed. While optical reading technologies may suitably be used to elec
tronically read data from the tags, the implementation shown in FIG. 1 as well as the remainder of this application uses radio frequency communication to electronically read the data stored on the tags. In more recent time, tags known as radio frequency identification (RFID) tags have been developed for a wide variety of applications in which data is stored and wirelessly communicated by the tags.
RFID tags typically have an antenna, a memory, and some form of processing circuitry that is configured to receive an interrogating signal from a sensor and transmit a reply signal bearing data stored in the memory. Some RFID tags are active in nature, meaning the tags have an energy storage, such as a battery, within the tag to power the components of the tag for communicating the data stored in the tag. Other RFID tags are passive in nature in that they do not have an energy storage in the tag. Passive RFID tags are configured to receive energy from incoming interrogation signals and use the energy of the incoming signals to produce an outgoing reply signal bearing the data stored in the memory of the tag. Both active and passive tags may be used in connection with implementations of the present invention. One example of a tag that has been found suitable for use is an IF5 tag with a near-field UHF antenna manufactured by Intermec. The term near-field indicates that the tags are specifically designed to operate at close range. Sensors in corresponding IF5 readers are calibrated so they only receive signals from tags on plates in their immediate vicinity. This helps avoid false data from tags on nearby plates.
FIG. 1 further depicts sensors 32, 34 which are configured to electronically read the data stored on the tag 3 0 of a plate 16 that is brought into proximity of the sensors 32, 34. In this particular implementation, multiple sensors 32,34 are shown generally spaced along the conveyor belt system 18. The sensors are generally located where consumers sit to consume sushi that has been placed on the plates 16. In other implementations, fewer or greater numbers of sensors 32, 34 may be used to track the plates 16 and the food items being carried by the plates.
A display 36 in communication with the sensor 32 receives the identification of a food item on a plate 16 that has been brought into proximity of the sensor. The display 36 thereafter displays the identification of the food item to the consumer 10 while the plate 16 is in proximity to the display 36. In the example shown in FIG. 1, the plate 16 is holding a sushi item comprising salmon, as shown by the display 36. Furthermore, the example shown in FIG. 1 depicts the sensor 32 at a location separate from the display 36. In other embodiments, the sensor 32 may be integrated with the display 36. In either case, the sensor 32 is positioned relative to the display 36 so that the identification of the food item is properly timed for display while the plate 16 is in proximity to the display 36.
The conveyor belt system 18 is configured to bring each of the plates 16 into proximity of the sensor 32 and the display 36, so the consumer 10 can consider the food items and select the food items he or she wishes to consume. As noted earlier, when the consumer 10 desires to consume a food item, the consumer removes the plate 16 from the conveyor, as shown by plates 20, 22. The consumer 10 consumes the food item while remaining on the premises of the operator of the food identification and tracking system shown in FIG. 1. If desired, after the consumer has consumed the food item(s) and the consumer's final bill has been tallied, the plates 16,20,22,24, 26 may be washed and reused to provide another food item to another consumer.
In similar fashion, the sensor 34 in FIG. 1 is configured to read the tags 30 of plates 16 brought into proximity of the sensor 34. The identification of a food item obtained from