SINGAPORE - Eight prominent Indian restaurant operators here are setting professional rivalries aside and banding together to form a central kitchen, a first for the industry.
Driven by dire manpower constraints, they are entrusting their fiercely guarded recipes to this new kitchen unit in Tuas.
The $2.5 million Central Processing Unit will produce gravies, sauces and pre-cut vegetables in bulk for restaurants such as Gayatri, Banana Leaf Apolo and Casuarina Curry.
The operators are able to pool resources to get machines they would not have been able to afford on their own, such as a $200,000 vacuum packing machine.
This will help them cut down on manpower needs by 30 per cent to 40 per cent.
Previously, 90 man-hours were required every day to process 2,500kg of the ingredients required by the restaurants. Now, only 24 man-hours are needed for the same output.
Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say, who was guest-of-honour at the launch of the new facility, called it a "step in the right direction".
Mr Lim said he had been told by industry observers that Indian restaurants were suffering from labour constraints and might have to close shop.
"Firstly they had a manpower shortage, unable to recruit and retain the manpower they need. They lack a Singapore core and have a heavy dependency on foreign manpower.
"Can you imagine Little India without any Indian restaurants? That would be a national disaster."
The Indian Restaurants Association (Singapore) came up with the idea in 2011, but it took several years for them to turn this vision into reality.
The group received funding from Spring Singapore and the Singapore Workforce Development Agency (WDA) for the facility. It did not disclose the amount of funding it got.
The central kitchen is the first project with multiple users to fully debut under the Lean Enterprise Development Scheme (LEDS), an initiative that allows firms temporary leeway on their foreign worker quota to help them restructure their operations.
Mr G. Shanmugam, an advisor and owner of Gayatri Restaurant, said: "One of the things that many of the collaborators are concerned about is the confidentiality of their secret recipes. We are careful to ensure that each restaurant's secret recipes are protected even if they outsource to the shared central food processing facility."
This protection includes allocating separate days for each restaurant to cook their gravies, and a coded system to ensure that nobody except the executive chef knows which restaurant's recipes are being cooked on which days.
The restaurants also have a "gentleman's agreement" not to snoop on each other.
Mr Gurcharan Singh, owner of Jaggi's Northern Indian Cuisine, said: "Of course I am worried about my secret recipes. Some of them are 20 years old.
"But it's not the end of the world for the recipes to be stolen. The final product is still done at my restaurant. I still hold the ultimate dish."
Each restaurant outsources at least four processes, such as sauce and paste preparation, to the central kitchen. The gravies can be stored for more than a week using cook-chill technology.
The only exception is the preparation of vegetables, which need to be prepared daily to ensure freshness.
Mr Shanmugam added that to improve employee welfare, they would try out a working arrangement for the 20 staff at the central kitchen, in which each worker would work a 12-hour shift a day and get the next day off. This is to help them save time and money travelling back and forth from remote Tuas.
The eight restaurants under the consortium that runs the central kitchen are Banana Leaf Apolo, Gayatri, Jaggi’s Northern Indian Cuisine, Casuarina Curry, Gandhi Restaurant, Samy’s Curry, Spice Junction, and Catering Solutions.
Correction note: An earlier version of the story stated that there were 10 restaurants under the consortium. This has been corrected to say eight instead as three of the restaurants had merged.