VENDING machines here are more associated with soft drinks, crisps and candy, but such machines could soon also be serving up piping hot meals. Government agencies and food and beverage (F&B) companies are turning their focus to selling food products outside their establishments as a way to get around rising rental and labour costs. Such machines could also open up new revenue streams for these F&B businesses.
Having food vending machines sited in housing estates, for example, has emerged as one solution; it is an idea the second Food Services Productivity Plan, launched at the Singapore Food Services Productivity Conference on Friday, will look into.
Speaking at the conference, Ali Potia, associate partner at McKinsey & Company, noted that Singaporeans eat out as much as the Japanese do, so there is room for the dining-out scene here to be as diverse as the one in Japan, where dining options range from restaurants and convenience stores to, of course, vending machines.
"The key to that lies in breaking out of the mould of the food-services format, which entails someone taking basic ingredients, processing them, cooking them, plating them, serving the food, collecting the payment and then walking the customer out of the door," he said.
Such machines are a part of everyday life in Japan, but the concept is only beginning to catch on here. A typical machine can hold 80 to 120 meals - similar to what a coffee shop sells in a day, noted Lim Hng Kiang, Minister for Trade and Industry (Trade), guest of honour at the conference.
JR Foods started selling its food through vending machines four to five years ago; it now has more than 100 machinesselling favourites such as hor fun and nasi biryani in schools, hospitals, hotels and offices.
Jocelyn Chng, JR Foods' managing director, told The Business Times: "We wanted to explore new revenue sources and have our food reach out to more customers. Manpower is really getting more costly for us."
Spring Singapore, a government agency overseeing enterprise development, is keen to propagate the idea; it is working with other government agencies on how such machines can be sited in commercial and residential estates. No details are available.
Another new business model being considered is selling "grab-and-go" food products through locations not run by the food company itself. For example, The Soup Spoon also sells packets of its soups at Cold Storage supermarkets; it started with five outlets two years ago and today, its soups are sold in 20 branches island-wide.
Asked whether the company was concerned that this retail arrangement would water down its brand as a dining establishment, executive director Anna Lim said no, because customers approach their products in supermarkets with a different mindset from their dine-in customers. Selling the soups through supermarkets has become a separate revenue source for the company.
She said: "We've invested in new technology and central kitchens to produce and raise the quality of our soups. This approach helps lower the overheads."
The push by government agencies to encourage new business models is expected to alleviate the manpower pressures in a sector where the workforce grew at 8.5 per cent a year from 2004 to 2014 - a little more than double the nation's workforce growth.
Aside from new business models, the five-year Food Services Productivity Plan will also help companies to improve efficiency with digital-service solutions in the front of house, and with automation and centralised dishwashing in the back of house.