Robo-cooks take some heat off kitchen staff crunch at TungLok

TungLok’s cooking machine (above) takes instructions keyed on its screen. Labour chief Lim Swee Say tossing uncooked noodles into the machine’s cooking drum during a visit to the kitchen on Friday. -- ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM
TungLok’s cooking machine (above) takes instructions keyed on its screen. Labour chief Lim Swee Say tossing uncooked noodles into the machine’s cooking drum during a visit to the kitchen on Friday. -- ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM
TungLok’s cooking machine takes instructions keyed on its screen. Labour chief Lim Swee Say (above) tossing uncooked noodles into the machine’s cooking drum during a visit to the kitchen on Friday. -- ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM
TungLok’s cooking machine takes instructions keyed on its screen. Labour chief Lim Swee Say (above) tossing uncooked noodles into the machine’s cooking drum during a visit to the kitchen on Friday. -- ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

F&B industry turning to technology to streamline ops, boost productivity

If R2D2 had a second life, it might be as a cook in a catering kitchen.

The loyal little robot from the Star Wars movies might be put to work churning out local favourites such as Hokkien mee and sambal kang kong, doing the job of three men and relieving a manpower crunch.

And indeed, such a scene did take place, not a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, but yesterday, in a second floor kitchen of home-grown restaurant chain TungLok's Upper Paya Lebar headquarters.

Facing a shortage of kitchen staff, the firm bought three "snack cub" robots, made by Chinese firm Pansum, in September to help it expand its catering business.

After all, a good recipe is fool - and robot - proof. The right amounts of raw noodles, fish cake and prawns can be tipped into a drum, and instructions punched in on a screen to produce, minutes later, enough piping hot noodles to feed 20 stormtroopers.

When it comes to pure mechanics, there is no contest. The largest of the robots can fry 100kg of fried rice in an hour. A human chef, working at top speed, could do 30.

They also save the firm money. "Chefs are expensive. It costs a lot less to hire a trainee who can operate the machines," said TungLok's executive chairman Andrew Tjioe.

The machines cost $150,000 in total and TungLok received an undisclosed government grant for the purchase.

Spring Singapore, the government agency handing out productivity grants to small and medium-sized enterprises, said grants are capped at 70 per cent of project costs.

Labour chief Lim Swee Say got to test out a robot when he visited the kitchen yesterday, and gave it the thumbs up. "Not too difficult (to use)," he quipped.

The noodles were not bad either. A taste test by The Straits Times found them to be on par with food court standards.

Later, Mr Lim told reporters that while the economy is expected to do well this year, the labour market remains tight and firms must innovate to be competitive.

He said: "Even in the traditional area like the kitchen, with the intelligent use of technology, with imagination.. it is possible to enhance productivity."

Other companies in the food and beverage industry are also turning to mechanisation to raise efficiency and reduce costs.

Japan Foods, which operates restaurants like Ajisen Ramen and Botejyu, invested $450,000 in a ramen noodle production facility for its central kitchen last year. The company has also bought machines that produce soup stock.

Its central kitchen in Kampong Ampat prepares items that are sent to its 42 outlets, including toppings for ramen and side dishes such as teriyaki chicken, chicken wings, and meat balls.

The kitchen supplies about half of all the ingredients used at the restaurants, reducing the space required for on-site kitchens and allowing for larger dining areas.

"Having a central kitchen also means we are able to bulk purchase, which has enabled us to lower our purchase costs," said chief executive and executive chairman Takahashi Kenichi.

Japan Foods has invested $1.8 million in its central kitchen to date, and plans to introduce e-menus in its restaurants soon to boost productivity even more, said Mr Kenichi.

The managing director of Soup Restaurant, Mr Mok Yip Peng, said the company has invested an undisclosed amount in automating some of its food preparation.

Its central kitchen produces about 20 items for the chain's 17 outlets, including its famous Samsui Ginger Sauce.

Mechanisation in the central kitchen has helped the company reduce man-hours at its outlets by up to 10 per cent, said Mr Mok.

Besides addressing the manpower shortage and reducing costs, machines also help to ensure quality control and consistency across Soup outlets, he said.

But even as TungLok turns to using robots, Mr Tjioe admits there are limits. However cute R2D2 may be, he will not be seen in a restaurant.

"People pay for the chef to produce good quality food. I don't think people want to pay only to try something cooked by a machine."

tohyc@sph.com.sg

chiaym@sph.com.sg