Sengkang residents form queues at VendCafe

Some people travelled from as far as Telok Blangah for a taste of the vending machine meals.
Some people travelled from as far as Telok Blangah for a taste of the vending machine meals.ST PHOTO: MARCUS TAN

People are queueing for up to an hour to try the food from vending machines in Sengkang

Forget Michelin-starred hawkers. Snaking queues are now forming for food from vending machines.

Over the past four days, curious diners, some travelling from as far as Telok Blangah and Kembangan, have been flocking to the VendCafe in Block 320C Anchorvale Drive in Sengkang, waiting in line for about an hour during lunch and dinner time.

The 50 sq ft void deck space, which opened on Sunday, houses vending machines that sell hot meals such as seafood hor fun, curry chicken with rice and chicken bolognese spaghetti, freshly squeezed orange juice, drinks and snacks. They operate around the clock.

When The Straits Times visited the space from noon to 2.30pm on Tuesday and Wednesday, there were about 40 people, mostly Sengkang residents, in the queue.

It was the same during dinner time at 7.30pm.

Most of the people were there to try the 19 meals dispensed from two vending machines named Chef In Box.

The halal-certified meals cost from $3.50 for vegetarian nasi briyani to $5 for grilled salmon with tomato spaghetti. The dishes are pre-cooked, frozen and packed in bento boxes.

The queues moved sluggishly because it takes three minutes for the vending machines' in-built microwave oven to heat up each box. Some customers also did not know how to handle the piping hot food containers and had to be helped by staff stationed at the machines.

To shorten the queues, each customer was limited to buying two hot meals at a time.

Ms Jocelyn Chng, 49, chief executive officer of catering company JR Food Group, which operates VendCafe, said the response has been overwhelming, with at least 600 hot meals sold daily.

The company has been replenishing stocks every one to two hours. It usually tops up its Chef In Box vending machines in other locations once every one to two days. It has also stepped up food production in its central kitchen in Senoko South Road.

VendCafe is a five-minute walk from Kopitiam Square Food Centre, which has 60 food stalls.

Ms Chng said: "We are not here to compete with food courts and hawker centres in the estate. Some people may want a hot meal after ending work late or are looking for dishes that are not available elsewhere."

VendCafe is a pilot project that is supported by enterprise development agency Spring Singapore and Housing Development Board.

Ms Chng plans to open three to five more VendCafes in the coming year and has received queries from supermarkets, shopping malls and industrial estates.

JR Vending, which is the vending machine arm of JR Food Group, which started in 2008, has about 100 Chef In Box vending machines in hospitals, army camps, universities, hotels and offices.

Ms Chng said that diners were becoming familiar with hot food vending machines, which had led to a doubling in demand for meals dispensed in the past two years.

The meals are cooked in the central kitchen before undergoing blast-freezing, a process where the food is brought down to about minus 18 deg C quickly to keep ingredients fresh and nutritious.

The food is then delivered to vending machines islandwide.

Vending machines serving hot food have long been popular in Europe and Japan, selling items from fried chicken and ramen to burgers.

Most diners interviewed were drawn by the novelty of vending machine meals and wanted to check out if these dishes tasted as good as the freshly cooked versions.

They were satisfied with the food quality, but said that the convenience was a bigger pull.

Cable car worker Ismail Mansor, 22, who travelled from his workplace in Telok Blangah to try the Japanese curry rice with chicken, said: "The flavours are quite similar to other ready-to-eat meals that I've tried.

"I hope VendCafe can open in my neighbourhood so that I need not depend on fast food delivery services for late-night meals."

Project executive Mark Soh, 45, who works in Sengkang, was surprised by the quality of his chicken bolognese spaghetti, which he said came out "nice, hot and not too bland".

He said: "I am tired of the limited lunch options in the area. The vending machine has many options and I do not mind switching to these meals for lunch."

Housewife Cindy Ng, 52, who lives in the block where VendCafe is, said: "The seafood hor fun is not as fresh as that cooked by hawkers, but the upside is that I need to only take a lift down for a hot meal."

Fellow Sengkang resident Edwin Chong, 28, an engineer, waited for 11/2 hours for Japanese curry rice and seafood hor fun. He thought that the food was "comparable to what is served in food courts".

He added: "But if I have to stand in such a long line, I'd rather go to a Michelin-starred hawker stall."

Watch a video of customers using the machine at http://str.sg/4Tjk

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 12, 2016, with the headline 'Vending machine meals are hot'. Print Edition | Subscribe