Horfun from a machine anyone?
The number of hot-food vending machines is growing in S'pore. Not only do they save on manpower costs, it is easier for companies to control the quality of food
Fast food is becoming faster.
But is it tastier?
And will the average foodie - spoilt for choice with hawker fare and fast-food restaurants - relish chow from a machine?
Hot-food vending machine companies like eeZee Vending and JR Vending think so. They are among at least three companies putting their money where their machines are in Singapore.
What is on the menu?
Instant hot meals such as pizza, spaghetti and seafood hor fun within minutes.
Each machine can hold about 100 items.
Amid the tight labour market and high rental costs, food vending machines seem to be a good choice.
Director of eeZee Vending Axel Steyer, 46, says he had noticed a gap in the Singapore market for hot-food vending machines.
"Two years ago, there were no vending machines that dispensed pizza in Singapore.
"Manpower costs are also high here, so why not bring in vending machines?"
Manpower is one of the main concerns for food and beverage businesses, says food and beverage business guidebook Turning Passion Into Profits, published by the Restaurant Association of Singapore.
It cited numbers from the Department of Statistics' annual survey of services from 2009 to 2014.
Labour costs have grown faster than revenues over the past five years, at 9.4 per cent versus 9.2 per cent annually.
The book also brings up Spring Singapore's 2015 study of productive business formats, which states that vending machines require 91 per cent fewer workers to serve the same number of meals per transaction as full-service cafes and restaurants.
Deputy president of Singapore Food Manufacturers' Association, Mr Jimmy Soh, 46, agrees that vending machines are a good way to beat manpower costs and crunch.
He says: "Hot-food vending machines have been a growing trend in Singapore.
"It minimises labour handling and provides ready-to-eat food any time. The cost of maintaining a machine is also much lower than maintaining a booth or restaurant."
Two years ago, eeZee Vending's pizza vending machine, Chef Mario, started dispensing 10-inch pizzas in flavours such as pepperoni, margherita and Hawaiian at Singapore Polytechnic and Singapore University of Technology and Design's housing facility.
Each pizza costs $7.50. The dough and ingredients are raw, and it takes three minutes to bake in the machine. At a pizza chain, a slice of Hawaiian pizza can cost $4.50.
Mr Steyer says rental fees range from nothing to $400 a month based on the location.
He says: "Some locations see vending machines as services offered to their students so it (rental) is free.
"But some locations charge a fixed rate plus electricity bills while others charge based on sales and commission."
Other than the Chef Mario machines which can hold 82 pizzas, eeZee Vending also has ice cream and premium snacks - such as organic foods - vending machines.
Another company attracted by the thought of saving manpower costs is JR Vending.
Since 2008, it has been operating machines that dispense local delights such as seafood hor fun, chicken curry with rice, and Western fare such as spaghetti bolognese and spaghetti carbonara with chicken.
The dishes are between $3.50 and $5, compared to between $3.50 and $8 at hawker centres. The pre-cooked meals are heated in the vending machine for three minutes before they are dispensed.
Chief executive of JR Group, Ms Jocelyn Chng, says running a hot-food vending machine is more cost-efficient than running a stall.
"We reduce manpower and have more control over the quality of food being served since everything is produced from our central kitchen. We don't need to have manpower at the vending machines although it operates for 24 hours."
Industry players say food vending machines have been popular in Europe and Japan for decades. In Germany, there is a vending machine that sells fresh egg, butter, sausage and milk. One machine in Osaka dispenses hot food such as fried chicken.
Director of toasted sandwich vending machine company Hotbake 24/7, Mr Gareth Davis, 35, says the idea came from Europe.
"Back in 2002, there was a trade show in Europe that showcased different kinds of vending machines. Then my partners and I realised there was a void in the market for fresh food from vending machines," says Mr Davis.
Hotbake 24/7 started in 2003. Each machine can store 120 sandwiches.
At any time, two flavours are available from the 50 created.
In recent years, sales have been picking up as Singaporeans get more accustomed to using the machines. But is the business profitable?
The three companies declined to disclose their revenue, claiming it is too early to tell.
The companies say most people buy from the vending machines for the convenience, not the actual quality of food.
Mr Steyer realises this. It is the reason why Chef Mario machines bake the pizzas fresh, instead of simply heating them up.
Ms Chng says: "More people are receptive to buying from vending machines, but there still remains a lot of awareness and education that we need to do to win over customers."
One company is looking to place over 100 machines by next year.
Chef Mario machines are now placed only at hostels but Mr Steyer says he is looking into more locations such as clubs and hospitals.
At least 10 types of vending machines here
Gone are the days when vending machines sold only drinks and dry snacks.
Now there are at least 10 types of vending machines here.
The products they carry range from hot food, cut fruits and vitamins to books, towels, stationery, N95 masks and even gold bars.
Industry players say most of the vending machines are inspired by those in Europe and Japan.
The director of eeZee Vending, Mr Axel Steyer, says: "It has been common practice to use vending machines in Europe and Japan since 20 years ago.
"Singapore is relatively new to the practice, but people are getting more accustomed to the machines."