A vending machine "cafe" serving hot meals, snacks and drinks at all hours of the day was launched in the heartland yesterday, with more on the way.
The first of its kind, the machines are part of a new wave of food vending machines - including ones that slow-cook food and serve freshly prepared dishes - that will be rolled out under a government initiative to make the food service sector more manpower-lean.
Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam launched the first VendCafe, operated by JR Vending, at the void deck of Block 320C Anchorvale Drive yesterday.
The cluster of vending machines, including two that dispense hot meals such as seafood hor fun, has stand-up dining tables.
The pilot project is supported by enterprise development agency Spring Singapore and the Housing Board (HDB). There are plans to roll out more VendCafes in the coming year, which may involve other operators.
Spring and HDB also announced that they are reviewing the tender requirements for bidders of new coffee shop spaces to encourage operators to optimise the use of manpower and space.
Mr Tharman, who is also Coordinating Minister for Economic and Social Policies, said technology can be harnessed to address the current manpower shortage while meeting consumer needs.
"The F&B sector takes up almost five per cent of our total workforce; we can't keep growing manpower, in particular foreign manpower," he said yesterday.
With vending machines set to feature more prominently here, 16 companies and technology providers showcased their wares last Tuesday at VendTech Singapore, the first networking event for providers, food and beverage and retail companies and landlords. Nine of the companies have not entered the Singapore market yet.
The event was organised by Spring, which is supporting eligible food companies through grants.
One exhibitor at VendTech, Mr Popiah, manufactures and supplies popiah skins and ingredients, and also has 11 outlets at coffee shops and foodcourts.
It will launch 10 machines selling traditional and fusion popiah at offices and housing estates by the end of the year. The company is also in talks with malls.
Compared to opening a new outlet, a vending machine saves about 40 per cent in cost, while operating 24 hours a day, said general manager Lewis Tan, 23.
Mr Jing Quek, founder of vending and automation solutions provider Konbini, showcased a "vending oven" at VendTech, which maintains a temperature of between 60 and 70 deg C and slow-cooks food.
A raw egg put into the machine, for example, comes out soft-boiled.
"Rather than pre-cooked food that's kept warm, you can put in uncooked or semi-cooked food", said Mr Quek, 33.
Indian food-tech company Frshly will sell hot meals from restaurants at its machines when it launches next month.
It currently has 10 restaurant partners, including Ponggol Nasi Lemak and Cali Grill and Bar.
Customers can order from up to 25 meal options, stocked just before mealtimes, from five to seven restaurants at each unit.
"Consumers in Singapore are super intelligent and tech savvy, and I think acceptance of this concept will be better than other places," said Mr Satish Chamyvelumani, chief executive officer of Owl Tech, which owns Frshly.
Five machines will be launched by the end of next month at business parks and industrial areas.
Civil servant Yvonne Hong, 28, is keen to try the new vending machine fare.
"With so many food options in Singapore, vending machine food is usually a last resort. But if these fresh food machines become more common, I think that will change."