SINGAPORE - Forget Michelin-starred hawkers. Snaking queues are now forming for food from vending machines.
Curious diners, some hailing from as far as Telok Blangah and Kembangan, have been flocking to the VendCafe in Block 320C Anchorvale Drive in Sengkang, waiting in line for about an hour during lunch and dinner time over the past four days.
The 50 sq ft void deck space, which opened on Sunday (Aug 7), houses vending machines that sell hot meals, freshly squeezed orange juice, drinks and snacks. They operate around the clock.
When The Straits Times visited the space from noon to 2.30pm on Tuesday and Wednesday (Aug 9 and 10), there were about 40 people, mostly Sengkang residents, in the queues. It was the same during dinner time at 7.30pm.
Most of them were there to try the 19 dishes, including popular ones such as seafood hor fun and chicken bolognese spaghetti, that are dispensed from two vending machines run by Chef In Box.
Prices of the dishes, which are halal-certified, range from $3.50 for vegetarian nasi briyani to $5 for grilled salmon with tomato spaghetti. The dishes are pre-cooked, frozen and packed in bento boxes.
The queues moved sluggishly because there was a wait of about three minutes for each box to get heated up in the vending machines' in-built microwave ovens. Some customers were also unsure about handling the piping hot food containers and had to be assisted by staff stationed at the machines. To shorten the queues, each customer was limited to buying two hot meals at a time.
Ms Jocelyn Chng, 49, chef executive officer of catering company JR Food Group, which operates VendCafe, said the response has been overwhelming, with at least 600 hot meals sold daily.
The company now replenishes stocks every one to two hours.
Ms Chng said: "We are here to complement and not compete with food courts and hawkers centre in the estate. Some people may want a hot meal after working late, for supper, or are looking for dishes that may not be available in the other dining places."
VendCafe is a pilot project that is supported by enterprise development agency Spring Singapore and the Housing Board.
Ms Chng plans to open three to five more VendCafes in the coming year and has received queries from supermarkets, shopping malls and industrial estates.
JR Vending, which started in 2008, has about 100 Chef In Box vending machines in hospitals, army camps, universities, hotels and offices.
She said that growing familiarity and trust in using hot food vending machines among diners has led to demand doubling in the past two years.
The meals are cooked in a central kitchen before undergoing blast-freezing, a process where the food is brought down to about minus 18 deg C quickly to retain the freshness and nutritional value of the ingredients. They are then delivered to the vending machines islandwide.
Vending machines serving hot food have long been popular in Europe and Japan, selling items from fried chicken, ramen to burgers
Most of the diners interviewed were drawn to VendCafe for the novelty factor and wanted to check out if the dishes tasted as good as the freshly cooked versions. They were satisfied with the quality of the food and said that the convenience of having hot meals quickly was a bigger pull factor.
Mr Ismail Mansor, 22, who travelled from his workplace in Telok Blangah to try the Japanese curry rice with chicken, said: "The flavours are quite similar to other ready-to-eat meals that I've tried and I am keen to return to try other dishes. I wish that VendCafe can open in my neighbourhood so that I need not depend on fast food delivery services for late-night meals."
Project executive Mark Soh, 45, who works in Sengkang, was surprised at the quality of his chicken bolognese spaghetti, which he said came out "nice, hot and not too bland".
He said: "I am tired of the limited lunch options in the area. With such a comprehensive menu, I do not mind adapting to a new way of getting lunch."
Housewife Cindy Ng, 52, who lives in the block where VendCafe is located, said: "The seafood hor fun is not as fresh as those cooked by hawkers, but the upside is that I can take the lift down and get a meal from the void deck."
Fellow Sengkang resident, Mr Edwin Chong, 28, an engineer, who waited for 1½ hours for Japanese curry rice and seafood hor fun, thought that the food was "comparable to what is served in food courts".
He said: "These dishes are like what you would get in economy class in-flight meals, but if I need to queue for so long again, I'd rather go to a Michelin-starred hawker stall."