New five-year plan to reduce food services sector's reliance on manpower

Food options including curry chicken and hor fun offered from a vending machine.
Food options including curry chicken and hor fun offered from a vending machine. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Consumers can expect more vending machines dispensing hot hawker food and kiosks offering takeaway ready-to-eat meals here, if a government plan to reduce the food services sector's reliance on manpower takes off.

Enterprise development agency Spring Singapore will help companies with innovative dining ideas test-bed these concepts in commercial and residential areas, under the second Food Services Productivity Plan announced by Minister for Trade and Industry (Trade) Lim Hng Kiang on Friday (Oct 30).

The Singapore Productivity Centre (SPC) will also assist companies who want to raise productivity but do not know to, through consultancy services, training programmes and workshops.

The five-year plan will focus on promoting manpower-lean dining formats like vending machines and ready-to-eat meals, while encouraging food & beverage companies to be more efficient and productive through the use of technology and automation.

The food services sector is heavily reliant on manpower for jobs such as cooks, waiters, cashiers and dishwashers. From 2004 to last year, the sector's workforce grew 8.5 per cent annually, slightly more than double that of the national workforce growth.

"Moving forward, the labour market will continue to tighten and evolve. This reliance on manpower, especially on rank-and-file workers, is just not tenable," said Mr Lim, speaking to industry players at a conference organised by the SPC at One Farrer Hotel & Spa.

Companies should consider new business models, such as grab-and-go, he said, outlining its advantages over the traditional models.

For instance, restaurant chain The Soup Spoon now sells its ready-to-cook packaged soups in its outlets as well as in various Cold Storage supermarkets islandwide. This format allows eateries to circumvent constraints such as a limited number of seats and how fast it can turn its tables around.

A typical vending machine can hold 80 to 120 meals, similar to what a coffee shop stall sells in a day. But it requires a fraction of the manpower to run, and can operate round-the-clock in a much smaller space, Mr Lim noted.

He also encouraged firms to adopt mobile apps, self-ordering and self-payment kiosks and tablet ordering systems. More than 600 establishments now do so, with about half of them coming on board in the first five months of this year, he added.

"The profile of Singapore's workforce is evolving as we see a slowdown in its growth, as well as the changing career aspirations of Singaporean job seekers. Revamping and varying our current F&B concepts is, therefore, critical," said Mrs Kee Ai Nah, Spring's group director for industry and enterprise group.