BEATING THE CRUNCH

Turning to tech, self-service

EATERIES are trimming menus, buying robots that stir-fry, going self-service, and even turning away customers to deal with the manpower crunch.

After Chinese New Year, 24 cashiers will be freed up at casual eatery Han's to become "multi-taskers", who perform jobs like making coffee or preparing food.

Seventy self-order kiosks - up to three per outlet - will let customers key in orders, which are automatically conveyed to the kitchen, and pay on the spot. By the year end, stock orders will be made automatically by computer.

"Our outlet managers said that they have no time to place orders. We had to think out of the box," said Han's deputy general manager Gan Yee Chin, 42. The firm also has new policies: Staff get $50 to $300 - depending on position - for each month of full attendance with no medical leave.

Yee Cheong Yuen Noodle Restaurant, which opened in the 1970s, will become a self-service eatery after Chinese New Year. Its 60-dish menu will be cut down to 40 and a stir-frying machine will arrive next month.

Buzzers, to alert customers when food is ready, are being tested out at Ya Kun Kaya Toast's Tangs Market outlet. They will be used at other outlets if successful. Its executive chairman, Mr Adrin Loi, hopes this will help ease its 15 per cent manpower shortage.

Mr Andrew Tjioe, executive chairman of TungLok Group, which is 20 per cent short of staff, has also cut the menus of each of his 30 outlets - across brands like Lao Beijing and Shin Yeh Bistro - down by 40 per cent so fewer chefs are needed. Machines help them cook up to 12 dishes. One worker operates three machines at one go to churn out dishes that would otherwise need six chefs to whip up.

Ms Lim Rui Shan, executive director of the Restaurant Association of Singapore (RAS), said there has been a trend of businesses investing in technology in the last three years. But implementation and adoption of more technology will take time. Mr Tjioe, who is also RAS' president, said automation is still a costly option.

Mr Takahiko Tsutsui, director of RE&S Enterprises which runs Kuriya Dining, noted the limitations of automation, "especially in a fine dining restaurant like Kuriya Dining, where personalised, quality service levels are a quintessential component".

Others like Lee's Taiwanese are increasing wages. Entry-level servers are now paid $1,600 a month, up from $1,200, said the eatery's owner, Ms Fiona Lee.

Fika Swedish Cafe and Bistro's next outlet will be a self-service one, said owner Tasneem Noor. Diners are turned away once a month at her three outlets as there are not enough servers.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution, said Singapore Polytechnic marketing retail lecturer Amos Tan, who urged businesses to relook the entire business format - down to cost structure, staff welfare, target audience, and whether the space they have is too big.

"The ability to evolve is key. Restaurants can take only reservations so they can manage costs better. Why not be creative and excite your customer? Have chef tables, bring samples out for customers to try," said Mr Tan. "If you just... rely on the quality of your food, you will not survive."

JESSICA LIM

Additional reporting by Rachael Boon