SOMETHING is brewing on the conveyor-belt sushi scene - and it is not fermented rice wine. So many of these restaurants have opened lately that the business is becoming cut-throat.
Staff poaching is rife, high rents and other costs are eating into profits and chains are quick to copy popular dishes of their rivals, say industry insiders who refused to be named.
And now, the sushi wars have become more intense, this time on the price front.
One new entrant is offering its sushi dishes at 99 cents each - the cheapest in town, at up to 91 cents less than what its rivals charge.
The upstart is Nihon Mura, which opened its first outlet last October. Its presence adds to five chains churning out those popular Japanese snacks going round and round across the island.
There is the biggest player Sakae Sushi, with 33 branches, plus the oldest players Genki Sushi and Sushi Tei, R E & S Enterprises- Ichiban Boshi and Ichiban Sushi, and Suki Sushi, of which Nihon Mura is a sister chain.
Already, Nihon Mura has proved a hit and has grown to two outlets, with another set to open next month. And it has the ambitious plan of setting up seven more this year.
Its director, Mr Kelvin Ong, says its business strategy is to avoid the malls, which are already overflowing with other chains, and opt for less expensive venues in suburban areas to keep prices low.
"If your food is good and cheap, Singaporeans don't mind travelling a bit more," he says.
Its plates, at 99 cents each, compare to $1.60 to $1.90 elsewhere.
Rivals tell LifeStyle they remain optimistic that there is room for the industry to grow because Singaporeans - particularly the younger set - have embraced Japanese food.
As R E & S Enterprises' managing director John Yek puts it: "The market is saturated if you are no good. If you are doing as well as you can, there is no cause for worry."
But in an industry estimated to be worth $150 million a year, it is no wonder businesses are jostling for a bigger slice of the sushi roll.
In fact, there are now over 60 conveyor-belt sushi restaurants in Singapore. You can find them in upmarket town venues, heartland malls and even swimming complexes.
But the tight market is turning up the heat in the kitchen, going by the politicking and rumblings among some operators - all done off the record, of course.
Tales abound, such as how one player is allegedly paying "astronomical" rent at a prime location "just to have a presence", and how one chain is losing money because its staff members help themselves to expensive food items from the kitchen every day.
Showing how tight margins are, another player tells LifeStyle how one of its competitors approached him some time ago and asked if he would be interested in buying their business.
The deal fell through at the very first hurdle because the selling party refused to provide detailed financial information about the company.
But the major bone of contention is the copycat culture within the industry, aggravated by the movement of chefs and kitchen staff across the chains.
R E & S Enterprises' Mr Yek says that copying is a reality of the business and one should "expect to be copied" if one is doing well.
He adds that his company strives to "move so fast" there is no time for others to copy. "At the end of the day, they can steal the idea, but not the quality."
Mr Douglas Foo, chief executive officer of Apex-Pal International which owns the Sakae Sushi chain, prefers to take a pragmatic view of this issue.
"We adapt from each other," he says, but admits to feeling "a sense of betrayal" in the beginning when some of his employees left and joined his rivals. "Now, if they set up restaurants of their own, I feel proud. In a way,
they are spreading the Sakae brand too."
Nihon Mura's Mr Ong, who worked in other chains before venturing out in 2002 with a business partner, says there is a fine line between creating and copying.
"If I created a dish at one chain and then I join another chain a year later, can you say I'm copying if I introduce that dish there?" he asks.
It is all a far cry from when the concept, otherwise known as kaiten-zushi restaurants - kaiten is Japanese for revolving - was first introduced to Singaporeans in May 1994. That was when Genki Sushi opened an outlet at Hitachi Towers.
"Singaporeans have become more knowledgeable about Japanese food over the years," says Genki Sushi's marketing manager Evelyn Ban. "In the past, you could serve them anything as long as it's sushi. Now, they want class."
Besides "class", variety has also been introduced to these chains over the years.
For example, when Sushi Tei opened its first branch in Holland Village in 1994, it was strictly a kaiten-zushi outlet with fewer than 50 items. Now, it has evolved into a trendy chain with a full-fledged menu of over 200 items.
But its director Daniel Ong maintains that the company will not expand too fast and lose out on quality in the long run.
"We are not on an ego trip. We want to be the best but not the biggest," he says.
However, seasoned sushi chompers note that although all the chains change their menus at least once a year, and introduce seasonal promotions to fight the "pirating" of their food, there is a sameness to most of their offerings.
Language consultant and sushi lover Miriam Wee, 40, says she wants value for money.
"Competition is good, but if it just pushes prices down without raising the overall quality, I'd rather spend more on real Japanese food at authentic sushi bars," she says.