It’s a weekday evening. We are on our way for a user interview. Time to grab dinner before that. We end up at the local food centre. It is located in one of the newer estates in a Northern suburb of the city. Beside it is the usual collection of retail outlets that cater to the needs of the residents e.g. pharmacy, small hair salon etc. Just round the corner is a refurbished fast food outlet with automated self-serve ordering booths.
We are intrigued by this new style fast food centre. As we go through the entire journey from food ordering to consumption, it is clear that the biggest change in the food centre concept is the activity centered around the food ordering and payment process (Apparently the have robots to clean the outlet although we did not see any).
At the entrance are 5 ordering and payment kiosks which are hard to miss. 3-4 staff are stationed here to direct and help diners. Customers from different demographics all seem to need some kind of help from the staff although some younger diners appear more confident. A mix of card and cash is used to pay at the machines. In this area, there is also a promoter trying to get sign-ups for one of the cashless payment services in the city.
The inside is neat and clean with warm lighting and graphics on the wall. The new element in the visual landscape are the large screens announcing the next number being served for food collection. Collecting food is similar to electronic queuing at a bank or a fast food restaurant.
The food centre has retained the ethnic identity by providing all 3 key cuisines even though space is limited. There is Yong Tau Foo, Malay and Indian food and a few Western food options. A drinks and dessert stall completes the typical food centre combination of stores. Prices are affordable and in line with general food centre prices.
A conventional eating ritual at a food centre has 4 key elements: 1) walking around to look at the food options, enjoying the visual treat and smells; comparing these across stalls 2) picking the food stall to order from often based on how popular the stall is 3) queuing up to place the order, paying for it and collecting it 4) consumption.
At the new age food centre this ritual is somewhat modified
- Often people look at how long a queue at a food stall is as this indicates how good the food is. The longer the queue at a food stall, the better the food is assumed to be. At the food centre you need to order at the entrance so symbolic cues like length of queue are not available
- There is no opportunity to walk to the store and look at the food or smell it. Except for the Yong Tau Foo store where ingredients have to be picked, the other stores do not have any food display to view. People make food custom using the visuals on the electronic panel at the entrance
- Decision making on what to order can be a collective experience. For families, where kids are young, they are often left out of the ordering process as they are too small to reach the screen and parents just place the order. Where kids are older then they may even take the lead in ordering for the entire family as using the touch screen to order appears to be fun.
Food consumption as a way to bring family and friends together however remains unchanged. The place is full of both families as well as lone diners from the neighborhood enjoying a normal dinner.
Food centres play an important communal role by providing accessible food and enabling local community interaction. They are the very core of what it means to be Singaporean. The new age food centre retains the primary function of a food centre and the classic Singapore identity.
At the same, it has adopted cashless payment and automation which are symbolic of what it means to be part of the new world. This confluence of ethnic identity with a global identity is reflective of the nation’s ambitions to be at the forefront of the new world while maintaining harmony and where family is central to life. The deployment of cashless initiatives at a Food centre has enabled a grassroots way of moving into the new world cohesively.
Our embrace of the new world also comes with the embrace of convenience in food (as is evident in the thriving food delivery services). The new age food centre is distancing individuals from the actual food at least in terms of selecting what one wants to eat. Ordering through an electronic machine based on some pictures reduces the food ordering experience to just the visual senses. Moreover, it has standardized the custom the stall can provide to a manageable finite set with little opportunity for personalization.