Bye, void deck shops. Hi, vending machines

No Signboard Seafood chairman Sam Lim (far left) and his business partner Lam Zhi Loong invested about $1 million to set up The Ma2 Shop's six outlets.
No Signboard Seafood chairman Sam Lim (left) and his business partner Lam Zhi Loong invested about $1 million to set up The Ma2 Shop's six outlets.ST PHOTO: FELINE LIM

Machines selling a range of items - including hot meals - take the place of traditional shops

Until a few years ago, void-deck convenience stores were affectionately called "mama" shops after the Indian men who ran many of them.

"Mama" means uncle in Tamil.

On Thursday, a cluster of vending machines called The Ma2 Shop - for Ma squared, a homage to mama - replaced a 150 sq ft mama shop in Block 143, Tampines Street 12.

Always open, the six machines sell everything from non-prescription medical supplies and household provisions, to hair accessories and powerbanks.

One of them - the Asian Food Box - which serves halal-certified hot meals such as chicken rice and chilli crab spaghetti, will start operating on May 27.

The machines accept cashless payments including ez-link cards and e-wallet services such as Apple Pay and Samsung Pay.

 

The Ma2 Shop is by the No Signboard Seafood restaurant chain, which operates four restaurants and is known for its chilli crab dish.

Five other outlets will be opened by May 27, all located in void decks of Housing Board flats.

An outlet at Block 8, Holland Drive, will open on May 5 while another at Block 7, Lorong Lew Lian in Serangoon, will open on May 15. The other locations are Block 21, St George's Road; Block 693, Hougang Street 61 and Block 411, Jurong West Street 42. All outlets will mostly have similar types of machines.

No Signboard Seafood chairman Sam Lim, 40, said: "The vending machines occupy spaces with stable rent and can run without manpower. The cost prices of the products are more stable than ingredients used in restaurants. We also plan to export our Asian Food Box vending machines serving Singapore cuisine to other countries such as Japan."

Mr Lim said it took six months to tweak its chilli crab recipe so that its taste could be retained after about two minutes of blast-freezing and reheating in the machine's built-in microwave oven. Chicken rice will cost $5.80 and chilli crab spaghetti or rice will cost $11.90.

His business partner in the venture, Mr Lam Zhi Loong, 33, was inspired by what he saw in Japan.

"Like Tokyo, Singapore is also facing increasing property prices and it is difficult to find workers in the food sector," Mr Lam said.

They invested about $1 million to set up the six outlets, from acquiring the machines to renovating the space, and plan to add machines that dispense ramen, onsen eggs and fruit jellies.

Some of the machines are fitted with a self-monitoring system that informs the operator to replenish stocks when they run out.

Last August, catering company JR Food Group opened VendCafe in Block 320C, Anchorvale Drive in Sengkang, serving hot dishes such as seafood hor fun and curry chicken rice, drinks and snacks. It will open four more outlets by June.

Tutor Jayne Leong, 28, who lives near The Ma2 Shop, said: "It is a good start to modernise the mama shop, but this is a mature estate and the elderly may find it difficult to use these vending machines. I am sceptical about the freshness of the ready-to-eat meals as I am not sure how often they are replenished."

• Go to http://str.sg/425C  to see the vending machines at The Ma2 Shop.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 29, 2017, with the headline 'Bye, void deck shops. Hi, vending machines'. Print Edition | Subscribe