SINGAPORE: It's 7pm and Ms Abery Tay has been waiting in line for about 20 minutes for her dinner at VendCafe, the newly opened vending machine cafe at Block 320C Anchorvale Drive in Sengkang - and there are at least five people ahead of her in the queue.
Ms Tay, 25, headed there after work in the hope of trying its claypot chicken rice, one of the dishes on offer at the cafe, as she said it seemed unique.
"Usually in convenience stores, you see dishes like spaghetti, but not claypot rice," she said, adding that she expects it would taste "similar but not as fantastic" as those at hawker centres.
Long queues were seen at VendCafe when Channel NewsAsia visited on Thursday evening (Aug 11), with a steady stream of people purchasing food since about 5pm. Some waited more than an hour, while others decided to head off after waiting a while.
At one end of the cafe are two vending machines which serve hot food. One dispenses local dishes, such as nasi briyani and seafood hor fun, while the other serves up Western-style offerings like salted egg yolk pasta with prawns, roast chicken with mushroom sauce, and salmon with vegetables. In total, 19 different dishes are available - if they are not sold out.
Patrons are given the option of purchasing a hot meal, which takes three minutes to heat up, or a frozen meal, if they prefer.
Seafood hor fun from VendCafe. (Photo: Calvin Oh)
In an alcove are vending machines for snacks and other small bites, such as sandwiches, drinks, and bite-sized brownies.
Two of the dishes on the current menu - Yangzhou fried rice made with mixed grain rice, and braised chicken in "duo olive pronto sauce" - have been given the Health Promotion Board's "healthier choice" symbol.
The cafe has already attracted repeat customers, such as Mr Desmond Tan, 40, who hails from Malacca and works in Singapore. While his family - who lives in Muar - was visiting Singapore, he decided to take them to the "cafe" for a meal.
"Normally we get our food from the hawker centre or the food court. This is something special - you won't see the chef, but you still get nice food."
Mr Desmond Tan and his family. (Photo: Calvin Oh)
Mr Tan has tried four dishes on the menu - nasi briyani with mutton curry, a salmon dish, a pasta dish, as well as the claypot chicken rice, and is satisfied with its quality so far. But besides the food, he thinks convenience is a huge draw.
"You won't need to worry that the shops close at 9pm or 10pm. 24 hours (a day), you can find something to eat - it's just like 7-Eleven," he said.
Staff members from catering company JR Food Group, which runs VendCafe, were seen helping customers with their orders and answering their queries.
"We were thinking if people were OK with the concept because it's a very new way of eating," said JR Food Group's CEO Jocelyn Chng, 49. "The concept of eating (food) from a vending machine in Japan is common but it's uncommon here."
Yangzhou fried rice, made with mixed grain rice. (Photo: Calvin Oh)
The concept has drawn curious onlookers and diners, many of whom were seen taking photos while waiting. Some also took the food home for their families.
Ms Verna Chung and Mr Chua Wen Xuan were also seen in the queue. Both of them live in the Sengkang area, and the concept of a vending machine cafe, as well as the price, drew them to buy their dinner there.
Due to the "overwhelming" response to the opening of VendCafe, each customer is now limited to purchasing two meals at a time. As a result of the crowds, Ms Chng said dishes are replenished every "one to two hours".
Staff members from JR Food Group replenishing stock. (Photo: Calvin Oh)
"For a good 15 hours a day, we get (a) constant (stream of) people queuing up for food," she said.
On Thursday evening, at least 15 people were waiting for their turn to buy food from the machines at any one time. Sometimes this was delayed by malfunctions: Between 7.15pm and 8.45pm, the machine dispensing local dishes stopped three times. Staff members stepped in to rectify the situation, and were heard saying that the machine had "overheated" and that it had been "serving up food since 10am".
Salmon with vegetables, one of 19 dishes available at VendCafe. (Photo: Calvin Oh)
Some popular dishes, such as claypot rice, were sold out by 8.30pm. Some patrons were disappointed by the limited offerings, while others who were too hungry went elsewhere in search of food.
The cafe has limited seating, with some patrons deciding to eat at a nearby void deck, or at benches by the badminton court next to it instead.
Regardless, fans like Mr Tan were not deterred by the drawbacks. "I will definitely recommend this to my friends," he said.
JR Food Group also hopes to bring the concept to other residential areas in the near future, its CEO told Channel NewsAsia.