SINGAPORE: In recent years, developments in food services and manufacturing have progressed so rapidly that food and beverage (F&B) companies worldwide have no choice but to tap into the latest automation in order to compete.
In fact, some F&B businesses in Singapore have already tapped into the latest technology to save on manpower and raise productivity, as well as improve customer experience.
For example, the creators of local innovations like the iKook and Rotimatic are more than prepared to buck the trend and step into the future of food with novel ideas in food preparation.
The brains behind the iKook chicken cooker, Alson Teo, told Channel NewsAsia that he was inspired by a global donut chain which has an automated manufacturing process, back when he was on a study trip in America many years ago.
“It impressed me because automation enabled the large outlet to only be manned by two people. It was highly productive,” he said.
“In the catering business, we were always constrained by manpower and rising costs. I was inspired to grow the business by harnessing technology and putting in place a scalable business model with robust systems and processes.
"When I returned to Singapore and discussed the idea of a chicken cooking machine with the (now passed on) highly respected chef Toh Thian Ser, we were very excited by the idea and started approaching partners to develop the concept.
“At that time (in 2006), only three people believed in our vision and we had to strike it on our own.”
After more than 10 years of development with food scientists and engineers, a small amount of seed money from SPRING and help from the National University of Singapore’s Design Technology Institute to build the machine from scratch, the invention has finally emerged as the world’s first automated poultry machine. It can poach, braise and sous-vide up to nine whole chickens at one go, ensuring that the chickens are cooked at a pre-programmed temperature for the right amount of time, with minimal supervision, thereby ensuring that the quality is consistent.
It is currently being used at Roost, a specialty restaurant in Singapore’s Centrepoint mall that serves the local version of Hainanese chicken rice and other interpretations of the classic dish.
Teo hopes the iKook will bring the authentic taste of chicken rice – which he deems as Singapore’s national dish – to international shores.
“With the world’s business landscape changing, we think it is imperative for companies to harness technology and innovation to grow the business internationally,” he said.
Elsewhere, the Rotimatic, created by husband and wife Rishi Israni and Pranoti Nagarka, started with the simple idea of making a traditional laborious food prep task a little bit easier. This is a robot roti-maker that uses the couple’s patented artificial intelligence technology to measure and mix the correct ratio of flour and water and oil. In other words, it saves everyone the arduous task of kneading and cooking traditional Indian flat bread manually.
According to Pranoti, a mechanical engineer by training, it took eight years, winning the Start-Up @Singapore Business Plan Competition in 2009, funding from both angel and private investors, and making 2,000 rotis daily in the office to finally perfect the Rotimatic.
Late last year, they started shipping their patented fully automated roti-maker to their first batch of customers who placed their orders as far back as 2014.
Priced at US$999 (S$1,351), Zimplistic – the couple’s company – has shipped about 8,000 pre-orders to the United Stares.
Both Pranoti and Rishi were singled out by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during his 2016 National Day Rally speech for their innovation and resourcefulness.
Even big brand names like Singapore restaurant group Tunglok have embraced food innovation and technology.
In fact, Tunglok is one of the first F&B outlets in Singapore to invest in high-tech machinery to increase productivity in their kitchens.
Back in December 2013, the company introduced three automated woks called Artificial Intelligence Cooking (AIC) machines in its central kitchen at Tai Seng Street.
These machines are first of its kind in Singapore and they can produce dishes at more than three times the speed of veteran chefs.
One AIC machine can fry up to 100kg of rice in half an hour, versus 30kg if cooked manually. Additionally, it reduces energy consumption by up to 30 per cent and 50 per cent of kitchen waste.
TungLok Group executive chairman Andrew Tjioe told Channel NewsAsia that since procuring the AIC machines four years ago, they have helped their catering arm “tremendously”, especially when it comes to large orders. So much so that the company has plans to expand its central kitchen and purchase new-generation machines.
“On top of productivity, it also ensures that our food comes out with great consistency and quality,” said Tjioe. “This results in the machines coming in as an indispensable aid to our catering business.”
Four years on, the AIC machines have also held up well, according to Tjioe, and hardly need servicing - which is why Tunglok will continue to use them.
“We will continue to use these machines for a long time; constantly keep abreast on new models to replace the obsolete ones,” said Tjioe. “As technology advances relentlessly, we have to ensure that we are on par, if not, ahead of it.”
But with every sort of food innovation, detractors often question the authenticity of the product, especially those that are revered for being traditionally made with veteran chefs at hand.
However, Teo has a response for anyone who might call his chicken rice inauthentic.
“Take this example: We love our coffee from the mom-and-pop kopitiams but we have grown to love the coffee from global coffee chains that use an intelligent gourmet coffee machine to ensure each cup is brewed to perfection consistently,” he said.
“So that is what iKook is … our approach to this invention is to put in the intelligence and the expertise of a chef to ensure the cooking is precise and consistent. Also very much like how the Japanese would approach their food – specialisation with accuracy.”