Eight prominent Indian restaurant operators are putting professional rivalries aside and banding together to form a central kitchen that is a first in the industry.
Driven by dire manpower constraints, they are entrusting their fiercely guarded recipes to this new kitchen unit in Tuas, which opened yesterday.
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.
But each restaurant's ingredients will be processed on separate days and the recipes guarded so that the offerings retain their distinctive flavour.
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.
Before this, 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, the guest of honour at the launch, called the new facility a "step in the right direction".
He said he had learnt from industry observers that Indian restaurants were suffering from labour constraints, and many might have to close.
"They have a manpower shortage, and are unable to recruit and retain the manpower they need. They lack a Singapore core and have a heavy dependency on foreign manpower," he said.
"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 to turn this vision into reality.
The group received an undisclosed amount of funding from Spring Singapore and the Singapore Workforce Development Agency for the facility.
It is the first project with multiple users to fully debut under the Lean Enterprise Development Scheme, an initiative that allows firms temporary leeway on their foreign worker quotas to help them restructure.
Said Mr G. Shanmugam, the association's adviser and owner of Gayatri Restaurant: "One of the things that many of the collaborators are concerned about is the confidentiality of their secret recipes."
Measures to protect the recipes include allocating separate days for each restaurant to cook their gravies, and having a coded system such that nobody except the executive chef knows which restaurant's recipes are being cooked on any day.
The restaurants also have a "gentlemen's agreement" not to snoop on one another.
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 if the recipes are stolen. The final product is still done at my restaurant. I still hold the ultimate dish."
Mr Shanmugam added that to improve employee welfare, a working arrangement is being tried out for the 20 staff at the central kitchen, where each employee would work a 12-hour shift a day and get the next day off.
This is to help them save time and money travelling to and 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.