Transforming food industry

Perceptions must change to support innovation

In the context of an ageing population, a corresponding manpower crunch, and low rates of productivity growth, the adoption of innovative business models and technology in the food services industry - such as ready-to-eat meals, digital services in the kitchen, skills and career upgrading of workers, and cashless ordering and payment systems - makes economic sense ("A taste of future at upcoming coffee shops"; last Friday).

Furthermore, low remuneration and few benefits mean locals shun jobs within the sector, and yet, the hiring of migrant workers comes with socio-political implications.

That the Government is launching industry-specific road maps to improve innovation and productivity in Singapore's economy - given a more competitive global landscape - is encouraging, even if changes may be painful.

Singaporeans, in general, have unrealistic expectations of tasty food at low prices (and perhaps good, personalised service), and are likely to be riled, lamenting the rising costs of living here.

Already, some are concerned that ready-to-eat meals may not be as healthy or palatable, that the learning curve for automation may be steep, that low-skilled workers may be displaced, and that cashless systems may exclude the less tech-savvy.

So, if changes are to take root, consumer perceptions will need to change too.

In fact, much long-term progress can be made by food operators to benefit their employees.

First, if training is provided to employees to master a particular technology or process, then not only should their wages appreciate, but employees should also be able to apply these skills in another industry, if they decide to move in the future.

Second, if prices are allowed to adjust based on market forces, and if it is true that dining experiences will eventually involve new formats such as "grab-and-go" and vending machines, then vendors offering a niche - hawkers and their homemade fare or restaurants offering exceptional service, for instance - will justifiably be able to charge higher prices.

Kwan Jin Yao

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 13, 2016, with the headline 'Perceptions must change to support innovation'. Print Edition | Subscribe