TNP Tries: VendCafe
My assignment was to investigate a new phenomenon that had caused a large gathering of people.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t Pokemon related. And while it was about food, there was not a Michelin star to be seen.
The cause of snaking queues in a Sengkang HDB estate was from a newly-opened automated self-service "cafe" – VendCafe.
Located at Block 320C Anchorvale Drive, this 24-hour operation opened on August 7, just two days before National Day. On Thursday, Aug 11, TNP went to check it out...
HIDE & SEEK
This modern hole-in-the-wall is situated between a cluster of HDB blocks, so those unfamiliar with the area might take a little longer to find it.
Thankfully, we discovered that the red and orange livery makes it easy to spot from afar.
As the name suggests, it uses vending machines - six in total - in the 500 sq ft space.
WHAT DO YOU GET?
The six machines are divided into cold drinks, hot drinks, orange juice, snacks, and the true stars of the establishment - Local Delights and Western Delights.
While my fellow TNP reporter Max Pasakorn joined the ever-growing queue for Local Delights, this writer went for Western - well, the pasta looked too good.
VendCafe owners JR Group, say to be prepared to wait from 45 minutes to an hour-and-a-half, depending on when you visit.
That's because it is a hot property, right now. We expect the time to go down later in the month.
Fortunately, when TNP visited, it was off-peak.
After half an hour, it was my turn to order - Max reached the front of his queue 10 minutes later.
Operating the machine was easy. Select what you want from the touch screen,and choose if you want it hot or frozen (frozen being the take-home option).
Then pay for it using cash, NETS Flashpay or credit card.
For the cash option, Western Delights accepts only $2 and $5 notes, whereas Local Delights machine accepts $10 notes. Coins work for both.
Each customer is limited to two bento boxes, due to high demand. Which given each meal has a 3 minute cooking time adds up. Hence a queue of about just six people taking close to 40 minutes to clear.
I bought a frozen Grilled Salmon with Mixed Vegetables meal ($4) and a hot Grilled Salmon with Spaghetti ($5).
TNP PHOTO: JOANNE GOH
Max plumped for a hot Mutton Briyani ($5) and a frozen Ikan Goreng with Sambal Goreng Rice ($4.50).
TNP PHOTO: JOANNE GOH
While the 3 minute wait seemed fine - things have to cook after all - the highly impatient may take issue with a 30 second wait for the frozen meals.
JR Group's CEO Jocelyn Chng told TNP that the response from the public has been a pleasant surprise.
Ms Chng, said: "I feel that this concept of dining also helps rekindle the old kampung spirit because we get a variety of people who come and gather here to eat."
As for future plans, the company is looking at similar residential areas which are not populated with other food establishments.
JR Group CEO Jocelyn Chng in front of Vendcafe. PHOTO: JOANNE GOH
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
TNP spoke to Madam Alice Ho, an Anchorvale resident, who was visiting for the third time in the week.
The 66-year-old housewife said: "There's a lot of variety in the food."
Madam Ho had even brought three friends to try the hot food options.
"The ordering process is very convenient. I'm sure I'll be coming here often to try all the dishes."
VendCafe also attracted the attention of some secondary school students who study near the estate.
Student Chantel Ku, 15, admitted they were there "to see what all the hype was about".
Her verdict? "The food is not bad. The queue was very long, but it was worth the wait."
THE TNP VERDICT
The Grilled Salmon with Spaghetti was comparable to airline food, in a good way.
The salmon was tender and still retained some of its moisture, unlike many microwavable frozen dinners.
The pasta was a touch dry but there was enough pasta sauce that help cover it.
While not expecting much from the Mutton Briyani, but I was impressed by the how flavourful the meat was.
The dish also came with carrot, cauliflower and potato.
It really needed some type of gravy but I understand how that might affect the freshness of the food.
Of course, you cannot compare it to briyani from coffee shops, but for $5, it was decent.
For a 40-minute wait, queueing for award-winning kopitiam food might be a better use of time.
But I have to admit the novelty of getting salmon from a machine has me hooked to come back again.
The salmon was pretty good - cooked at around the right temperature with the freshness in the meat preserved.
The briyani fared less well. The meat was prepared well with a tasty sauce. But,I won't be going for a rice dish from VendCafe again. The rice was so dry I considered queue-jumping to grab an orange juice.
That said, the other meals, such as the salted egg yolk pasta are tasty and value for money.
If this was in my neighbourhood, I'd likely use it every other day, especially now that I'm sometimes out late catching Pokemon.
Maggi mee may have just found its replacement.