SINGAPORE: Months after Singapore’s first all-vending machine café opened in Sengkang to much fanfare and public curiosity, two more are set to open their doors come April – this time at two public transport hubs.
The second and third VendCafes will be located at the Ang Mo Kio and Lakeside MRT stations.
Operator JR Vending had previously announced plans to open their unmanned cafés in Rivervale and Pasir Ris next month, but these were pushed back when the opportunity to work with SMRT came up, said the company.
“We wanted to try out the VendCafé concept in a more mass, fluid audience group,” said JR Group CEO and founder Jocelyn Chng. Residential estates by comparison have a more “captive audience”, she said.
The first VendCafé opened at Anchorvale Drive in August 2016, and drew long queues of those curious to try the three-minute hot meals dispensed by Chef In Box machines, such as claypot chicken rice, nasi briyani, salted egg yolk pasta and hor fun.
WATCH: Behind the scenes of your meal (2:12)
The idea for the vending machine café – an example of how to leverage technology in a manpower-lean F&B sector – was conceived by Ms Chng. She is featured in Monday’s (March 20) episode of Game Changers, a documentary about Singaporean entrepreneurs who shake up their industries.
Apart from detailing Ms Chng’s journey as an entrepreneur, the episode also reveals some interesting insights into what goes into vending machine meals.
IT TAKES A TEAM TO CREATE A DISH
JR Vending’s chefs come up with new dishes which are then tested by Ms Chng and her colleagues.
This is how serious the taste-testers are about their job: They sit in isolated booths and, after trying out the sample that appears through a hole in the wall, they rate the dish using detailed forms.
After a dish is developed, it’s sent for bacterial count tests, and a nutritionist weighs in on making it a more balanced meal such as by adding more protein-based ingredients.
“From research of the product till we launch the product, it will take us maybe two to three months,” said Ms Chng. A more complex dish could take up to six months.
FRESHNESS IS IMPORTANT
“We don’t add any preservatives or additives,” Ms Chng said.
To ensure that the dishes remain fresh when they pop out of the vending machines, after each batch of food is cooked, it gets sent to a blast-chilling machine to quickly bring down the temperature. This is to prevent bacteria growth, according to Ms Chng.
After this, individual portions are weighed out, sealed into trays and put in the freezer, ready to be sent out to more than 100 Chef In Box machines around Singapore.
REHEATING FOOD IS AN EXACT SCIENCE
Reheating a frozen meal is not just about popping it into a microwave and zapping it on high for a minute – in fact, every second matters.
“If the proportion is wrong, or the placing of ingredients is wrong, sometimes it may turn out to be not properly heated up or sometimes it may be over-cooked,” Ms Chng explained.
One of the more challenging dishes to heat up is hor fun, a stir-fried flat noodles dish, “because there are many different components” such as vegetables and prawns. She said: “It took us a while to understand the properties, the moisture, in order to come up with a perfect dish.”
Each Chef In Box machine has the capacity to heat up some 480 meals a day, if run continuously for 24 hours.
While scouting for a location for the first VendCafé location, Ms Chng spotted an opportunity in Anchorvale.
“In the younger housing estates, there (aren’t) as many amenities as the more mature estates,” said Ms Chng, who set up the first café for “about a quarter million” dollars.
JR Vending plans to open two more cafes in Rivervale and Pasir Ris in mid-2017.
Meanwhile, Anchorvale’s younger residents are enjoying the convenience of having hot meals and freshly-squeezed orange juice close by.
A student who was buying food at the VendCafé at the void deck said: “If I want to buy from the hawker centre, I’ll have to cross the street. It’s more convenient for me to buy from here.”
With no lack of hawker centres, coffee shops and restaurants in food haven Singapore, Ms Chng is out to convince sceptics who wonder if vending machine meals are as good as the so-called real thing. “We have been educating the customers that all the food that comes out of the machines is actually ‘real food’,” she said.
And why does she bother? As a business, she said: “It’s change or be changed … The only way to remain very competitive is to be the trendsetter.”
Catch the story of Jocelyn Chng on Game Changers on Monday, March 20, 8pm SG/HK.