SINGAPORE - It's mechanical makan.
More vending machines are popping up around Singapore offering local dishes like hor fun, curry chicken and fried rice at the touch of a button.
Checks by The Sunday Times found that at least eight food manufacturing companies are expanding their vending machine business or planning to jump into the fray.
A typical machine has close to 100 frozen meals, consisting of about 12 menu items.
Priced between $3.50 and $5, they are heated in a microwave for about three minutes before they are dispensed with cutlery.
The machine is topped up every three days or so, depending on sales. Meals can keep for up to six months - though they usually sell out before that.
The meals may not be as bad as some gourmets might believe.
One operator here supplies the same frozen fare to several five-star hotels for late-night room-service meals. The food is plated, garnished and sold for as much as triple the price, according to industry players.
Vending machines are becoming increasingly popular with businesses which want to give late-shift workers an easy food option, as well as firms unable to run canteens.
Major local player JR Vending has 70 Chef In Box vending machines in hospitals, companies, army camps, shopping malls, condominiums and schools - up from 20 just two years ago.
It aims to have 200 vending machines by next year.
It is even working with a budget hotel, which will soon use the machine instead of a chef to provide breakfast for guests.
The machines, which are developed with an European firm, cost $30,000 each. JR Vending supplies them to various locations for free as long as there are guaranteed sales of 30 meals a day.
It is in talks with the Housing Board to install them at void decks, and gets at least two inquiries a day - mostly from far-flung companies looking to feed late-shift workers.
JR Vending's chief executive Jocelyn Chng said the venture allows the company to operate with a small team of workers.
When a machine is not doing well, it is simply moved elsewhere.
"We're not tied down by rental agreements and we don't need anyone to man these machines. They are like man-less cafes," said Ms Chng, whose operating team is made up of just three delivery men and three technicians.
Thai frozen food brand CP Foods is also working with a local vending machine manufacturer.
It hopes to launch about 10 hot-food vending machines here by the year end.
The Sunday Times understands that at least six other food manufacturing firms have contacted the Government for help to develop similar machines.
Mr Sim Choon Siong, director of the industry development group (food division) at Spring Singapore - the government agency that helps local enterprises - said the machines "allow operators to serve more meals efficiently with their current manpower, and with a smaller space".
Restaurant Association of Singapore president Andrew Tjioe believes the machines offer another choice for consumers that is likely to remain reasonably priced.
"Food prices are on the rise with labour costs and rental going up, so this is a low-cost alternative," he said, though he does not think the vending machines will become a mainstream choice.
He added: "They will be popular, but only if everything else is closed and people have no choice. The mindset that people have is that it is microwaved food and certain people don't like that.
"We have so much accessible good food here at reasonable prices, so don't expect people to switch to vending-machine food."
Operations manager Jackson Lim, 28, said he would eat such food only "as a last resort", adding: "I would prefer something freshly cooked."
But engineering student William Nebho, 21, eats meals from one of JR Vending's machines at the National University of Singapore twice a week, when he stays up late to study.
"There is no food elsewhere late at night," he said. "Before I tried the food, I thought it must not be fresh. But I realised it was really good."