by Danielle Goh & Sharanya Pillai
AS PATRONS of the Happy Hawkers coffee shop at Tampines Street 86 have their late-afternoon meals, child-like voices ring out in the background: “Excuse me, I’m helping with tray return.”
When customers obstruct the pathway, they are greeted with sad eyes.
The voices and facial expressions belong not to actual children, but two humanoid robots, each over 1.7 metres tall, manufactured by local company R Factory. As part of their daily duties, the nameless robots patrol the premises – about the size of a classroom – on wheels. One robot is reserved for Halal food, and the other for non-Halal food.
As businessman Mr Patrick Tan tucks into a bowl of ramen, one of the robots rolls along past him. Amused, he says: “These are just gimmicks. When we come to an eatery, what we want is just good food, a clean place and (being able to) make sure that we don’t get food poisoning.”
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The non-Halal food robot at the Happy Hawkers coffee shop in Tampines.
The Happy Hawkers outlet, run by Koufu, is one of two heartland coffee shops developed using innovative business models under the G’s Food Services Industry Transformation Map. The other is the FoodTastic coffee shop at Choa Chu Kang Avenue 1, run by Chang Cheng. Both outlets opened on Sunday (May 21).
But customers are having mixed feelings about the hi-tech trappings of the “productive” coffee shops.
A major feature of the coffee shops is the emphasis on making ordering more efficient, while encouraging customers to go cashless.
The Tampines outlet boasts touch-screen panels next to every stall for self-ordering and payment with cash or card. Customers are given a five per cent discount when they use cashless payment methods like NETS, credit or debit cards.
Few patrons actually used the panels, instead reciting their orders to the hawkers as usual. The hawkers themselves then stepped out of their shops to complete the order on the machines and show customers how to pay.
For housewife Ms Joanne Teo, the new system introduces too many intermediary steps. The 40-year-old ordered rice and mixed vegetables on the touch-screen panel, but said that the hawkers did not start preparing the dish until she realised that she had to pass them her receipt.
“It would be easier for me to just tell them what I want,” she said, adding that the elderly living in the rental flats nearby might struggle with using the system.
But some elderly that The Middle Ground (TMG) spoke to actually enjoy the new technology. Retiree Mr Bernard Loy, 60, is an avid user of Koufu’s Beat the Q app, which lets him browse the menu and order using his smartphone. Users also enjoy a ten per cent discount.
“The prices are reasonable with the app,” he said. “I think it’s a good idea.”
Over at the Choa Chu Kang coffee shop, another senior had a different opinion. As she settled down at a table with her friends, 62-year-old Ms Judy Eu was visibly flustered, uttering “hen ma fan” or “very troublesome” in Mandarin.
Unlike the Tampines coffee shop, FoodTastic has six centralised self-ordering kiosks at the front of the outlet – similar to those at fast food chains. Most kiosks only accept card payment, some accept both cash and cards.
The interior does not consist of individual stalls, like a typical coffee shop, but instead has collection counters. While this greatly reduces manpower, it also means not being able to see the chicken hanging from the hook at a chicken rice stall, or hand-pick ingredients for yong tau foo, which Ms Eu resented.
She also found it difficult to use the touchscreen interface at the kiosk, saying that it was slow in response. “If I have special requests, like less ice in my drink, I also can’t (specify) it in the machine,” she added.
And it also gets a bit more complicated with ordering drinks. While it was a breeze to select an order of milo gao (concentrated milo) or milo xiu dai (milo with less sugar), there was no option to order a combination of milo gao xiu dai (concentrated milo with less sugar).
When TMG tried to make a special request on an order – mee goreng without bean sprouts – a member of the staff had to personally pass the message to the kitchen.
However, staff whom we spoke to were receptive towards the new technology. Ms Yong Mui Mui, 64, a part-time cleaner at FoodTastic said that a new automated tray return system, which has yet to come into operation, would ease her workload during peak hours.
A new cleaning robot also assists Ms Yong with nightly duties.
Similarly, Mr Ng Siew Boon, a worker at one of the Happy Hawker stalls, felt that the efforts are a “start” to becoming more efficient. “With this, we really can save on manpower in the future. It’s good to take the first step and not be afraid to try it out,” he said.
The Tampines outlet even has two extra robots that can be deployed if it gets more crowded, Mr Ng added.
This is not the first time that the G is encouraging coffee shops to become “smarter”. In 2014, food centres started introducing NETS FlashPay terminals to encourage cashless payment.
However, the reception was lukewarm. Some stall owners have stopped using FlashPay as the payment did not go through at times or that the device took up too much space in the stall, Channel NewsAsia reported in March.
It remains to be seen if the latest productivity drive – which came at a cost of $1 million for Chang Cheng and a 70 percent cost increase for Koufu – will bear fruit. For now, operators seem to bear the brunt of the costs, with customers interviewed at both food courts noting that prices remain affordable.
For many patrons like Mr Tan, the difference between a “productive” coffee shop and a typical one is not that visible yet – except for the “new and shiny” tray-bearing androids.
Even then, some things don’t really change. As Mr Tan finished his noodles, he eyed the robot – but a cleaner approached him first and cleared his tray for him.
Featured image by Danielle Goh.
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