When you enter the new 24-hour hawker centre at Ci Yuan Community Club in Hougang, what catches the eye are the bright red machines situated prominently at each of the 40 stalls.
They are self-payment kiosks which allow customers to order and pay for meals.
The machines were introduced by Fei Siong Food Management, the managing agent of the hawker centre. It is the first in Singapore to have them at every stall .
Group managing director Tan Kim Siong, 45, says the kiosks were installed to meet the operational needs of hawkers. These include reducing manpower costs and allowing hawkers to serve customers in a more efficient and hygienic manner.
He says: "We are trying to minimise the manpower needed as it is very difficult to employ people nowadays. With these kiosks, hawkers do not have to touch or collect money and can concentrate on preparing the food."
The project is in its first phase, so customers order from the hawkers and pay at the kiosks. The machines can take notes up to $50 and coins of denominations starting from 10 cents.
The self-ordering feature is available on all the machines, but will be unveiled at a later stage, says Mr Tan. "Customers are still getting used to the self-payment procedure so we don't want to implement the self-ordering function too quickly."
Since the hawker centre opened on Aug 6, customer feedback has been mostly positive, he says, though some older folk find it "troublesome" to use the machines.
During the first few days of operations, some diners tried to force money into the machine and also slotted in more than one note or coin into the slots at one go.
But Mr Tan says most people are now familiar with the new system. Fei Siong Food Management will introduce these kiosks in hawker centres they plan to operate.
He says the team decided to introduce the machines after seeing similar ones in food-andbeverage outlets in Japan.
He declines to reveal the cost of the machines, but says they are a "significant investment".
Two other hawker stalls in Singapore also use similar self-payment kiosks. One of them is an Indian food stall at Berseh Food Centre, which has yet to begin operations, and the other is the drinks stall at Food Summons Coffee Shop in Waterloo Street.
Hawkers tell Life the machines are a boon.
Madam Julie Tan, 36, who helps her husband at his Japanese food stall Kitchen@work, says they are able to serve diners more quickly.
"We don't have to wait for diners to hand money to us before we send in the orders and start preparing their food," she says.
The machines also allow daily takings to be better accounted for, says Mr Valentino Valtulina, chef- owner of Italian-Western stall The Pasta Stop.
"Bosses feel more secure as there are receipts. There is less handling of money and less risk of money disappearing," says the 41-year-old Italian, who also owns well-known Italian restaurant Ristorante da Valentino in Turf Club Road.
Others, such as Mrs Irene Woo, who works at 126 Veg Rice stall, say getting customers to pay via the machines reduces the likelihood of money disputes with them.
The 50-year-old adds: "Sometimes diners claim they've received the wrong amount of change from the machine. But since the screen shows how much you put in and how much change you should get back, we don't have to argue so much with diners."
Most of the customers say they were surprised to see such high- tech machines in a hawker centre, but found them easy to use.
Retiree Pang Kim Chuan, 75, says: "The best thing is that the hawkers don't need to touch the money. I didn't find it difficult to use after they explained to me how to insert the money into the machine."
Civil servant Adrian Tiong, 45, says: "I quite like this system and the hawkers were very helpful in telling us how to use it. The screen shows your total amount and everything is very clear. "
However, some customers had reservations about ordering food and drinks using the machines.
Retiree Yeo Ah Lee, 66, says it is less efficient than verbally ordering from the hawkers.
"Old people may face problems, especially those who are less mentally active and cannot read," she says. "The queue will move slower because we must wait for each person to learn to key in his order into the machine."
Student Jonathan Lim, 13, agrees. "Paying is easy because it is just inserting money. But for self-ordering, what if you want to add chilli or don't want soup with your noodles? It's more tedious and troublesome."
Fei Siong says it is working to improve the self-ordering system. On top of having English and Chinese text, there are plans to include pictures of the dishes or drinks on the screen to cater to the elderly. There will also be meal customisation options.
Mr Tan says: "For example, fishball noodles come with various kinds of noodles. There will be pictures of kuay teow, yellow noodles, beehoon or mee kia for you to select. On the next page, you can indicate whether you want chilli."
Customer Lee Lai Yee, 48, who is self- employed, says she prefers the traditional way of ordering her food.
"I like to talk to the auntie or uncle when I order my food," she says. "You lose the kampung spirit when everything is mechanised."