Could labour crunch mean goodbye to coffee shop 'kopi kia'?

Labour crunch prompts industry bodies to consider going the self-service way

The labour crunch in Singapore has forced the two associations that represent coffee shops here to entertain a radical move - to get patrons to serve themselves.

The thinking is that this will reduce the need for the traditional kopi kia - Hokkien for coffee boys - who take orders and serve the drinks to customers. They are also known as "runners" in the coffee shop trade.

The move was first brought up in an informal meeting between the Foochow Coffee Restaurant and Bar Merchants Association and the Kheng

Keow Coffee Merchants Restaurant and Bar Owners Association earlier this month.

Both sides, which represent more than half of the 1,300 coffee shops here, have agreed to study the idea and discuss it with their members.

"We hope that it will help reduce coffee shops' demand for workers," said Mr Hong Poh Hin, chairman of the Foochow association. He added that his association's committee will discuss the idea when it meets next month.

He said, however, there will not be any rush to push through the new move because older workers may lose their jobs. Still, he hopes that the number of runners can be cut by "about half" and the manpower can be deployed to do other work such as cleaning tables or manning the till.

Meanwhile, Mr Thomas Foo, chairman of the other association, said that it is planning to take the first step towards the change by putting up posters to encourage self-service.

Checks by The Straits Times found that a typical drinks stall in a coffee shop hires at least two runners. They work eight to 12 hours a day, with two rest days every month. Their monthly pay is between $900 and $1,200.

While there are runners from Malaysia and China, coffee shop operators say that customers still prefer Singaporeans who understand the local dialects.

Coffee shop operators polled by The Straits Times said they are supportive of the idea, but noted that it has to be implemented by everyone.

"If not, those who go self-service can lose customers to those who continue to use runners to serve drinks," said Mr Hoon Thing Leong, chairman of the Kim San Leng chain of 15 coffee shops.

That is because coffee shops that go self-service risk losing the personal relationships that runners strike up with customers.

"I remember the orders of regulars, and I also help customers peel the shells of hard-boiled eggs," said 64-year-old runner Lily Ong Gek Hoon. "If the job is taken away from me, I will find it hard to find another one that I enjoy doing," she added.

The Straits Times also spoke to 20 coffee shop customers, who were lukewarm to the idea of self- service.

"If I have to buy my own drinks, I may not even want to have drinks with my meal. For old people like us, it is hard to hold hot and heavy drinks," said 65-year-old retiree Kiu Yeo.

But 19-year-old student Liew Shuo Ren supported the move, saying: "Foodcourts have already done it."

Mr K.F. Seetoh of Makansutra said that the kopi kia is a key part of Singapore's food culture. "Yes, there is a labour shortage, but how far do you want to go in slashing our heritage, history and culture... in the name of solving our labour problem?"

tohyc@sph.com.sg

suetan@sph.com.sg