When Ms Jocelyn Chng watched the queues snake on for days at Singapore’s first vending-machine cafe, it was a moment of sweet vindication for eight years of hard work.
Her company, JR Group, had launched it at a Housing Board void deck in Sengkang in August.
The hungry and the curious came by the hundreds, eager to experience the fully automated cafe where a cluster of six vending machines dispense everything from beverages and snacks to cooked meals and dessert at all times of the day with the push of a few buttons.
The highlight for many was the hot meals, priced between $3.50 and $5.
They contain no preservatives and range from chicken bolognese to curry chicken with rice. Peel back the lid on the box of seafood hor fun and the smoky aroma of noodles cooked in a wok whets your appetite.
There are plans to open 20 more of these cafes next year in residential estates, offices and schools, with two up and running by the first quarter in the HDB estates of Rivervale and Pasir Ris.
Ms Chng, 49, says: “Everybody says to me now, ‘Congratulations, you saw this coming before all of us.’ Yes, I smelled the business opportunity early, but making it happen was really about persevering through the challenges.”
She turns up for the two-hour long chat in the void deck where the first VendCafe is located in an ensemble of black – a billowy sleeved blouse and skirt with lace trim, embellished nails and leopard print heels.
She is unvarnished, however, about the hurdles she has had to overcome, both in business and in life – she was her family’s chief breadwinner at 21 and a widow with three sons at 37. For her, crises have always represented opportunities and the food vending-machine business was no different.
When the company launched its first machine dispensing hot meals in 2008 at a hospital, the machine could not keep food fresh for an extended period of time and wastage was high.
They were also unsure of what customers wanted to eat, so “it was omakase every day”, she jokes, referring to the Japanese practice of letting the chef decide what one eats.
It took eight years of research, tests, machine upgrades and the launch of 100 standalone hot food vending machines in army camps, universities and industrial offices before the first VendCafe was rolled out.
The gutsy entrepreneur, who has been running businesses since she was 14 and who is also the managing director of the home-grown sauce company Sin Hwa Dee, says: “Some colleagues wondered why I believed in a business model like this and would not give up on it. I had to keep telling them about the future of it and make them believe in it, so that they would not feel like they are following a crazy leader.”
She also had to fend off naysayers who pointed discouragingly to the tepid take-up of food-vending machines in other countries. But she never hesitated. “I believe in producing good quality, wholesome meals, bringing them closer to the customer and automating the cafe to cut down on manpower,” she says.
It was her unwavering vision and tenacity that inspired the team to stick by her when the going got tough, says Mr Tony Chng, 39, JR Group’s chief operating officer and her brother. He adds: “She also seeks the team’s counsel and respects our advice. But she is discerning and knows when to listen to us and when not to.”
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