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JR Group: Reimagining food delivery

First published in The Business Times on 11 December 2019.

When it comes to her business, Jocelyn Chng innovates so far outside the tried-and-tested she often finds herself in uncharted territory. But when it comes to her food, she likes it just so.

The founder and CEO of JR Group pauses, as if embarrassed, before she admits: "Frankly speaking, when I go overseas, I eat a lot of fast food."

What makes this admission so ironic is that Ms Chng's life revolves around food. JR Group is the holding company behind a group of businesses which encompass manufacturing, institutional contract catering, event catering and management, restaurant operations, and hot-food vending machines.

Restaurant brands under its management include Imperial Feast, Oceanspoon Dining and Shima. The latter was established in 1980 as the first restaurant in Singapore to introduce the concept of Japanese Teppanyaki. It is located at Goodwood Park Hotel.

Ms Chng is also the managing director of family business Sin Hwa Dee, which is behind the Chng Kee brand of sauces and premixes. Indeed, it was under her leadership that Sin Hwa Dee led the pack in developing its own line of pre-mixes.

Meanwhile, JR Foods was an early pioneer in the manufacturing of cook-chill and cook-freeze ready-to-serve meals for both consumers and food service markets.

"In 2001, we were travelling so much to food exhibitions, we saw where the market was moving, especially in developed countries. So we wanted to bring this concept to Singapore because, as you can see, it's getting more and more difficult to get manpower and people want convenience," says Ms Chng.

And then the trailblazer decided to take what was considered, even for her, an unexpected detour: vending machines - specifically, machines that dispensed hot meals, a first of its kind in Singapore and Asia.

Tough pill to swallow

The concept of setting up vending machines that dispense hot food was a tough one to stomach given the plethora of hawker centres, food courts and restaurants that dot a city-state known as much for its hawker appeal as its haute cuisine.

"Everybody said it was not a sustainable business," says Ms Chng.

And the list of stakeholders to convince was long - from machine manufacturers to solutions providers whom she needed to convince to develop a machine that could collect payment via means other than cash.

It did not help that vending machines then were not designed to the required specifications. For instance, most machines were manufactured to keep items chilled, whereas what was needed was for the food to be kept frozen to prevent bacterial growth.

At the other end of the spectrum, the team at JR Vending also had to win over perhaps the most important stakeholders of all: consumers.

"A lot of customers were worried: 'I don't want food from the machine, I don't know how long it has been kept there, whether it has expired, whether jia liao seh hong," she says with a laugh, citing the old wife's tale that you can develop wind or stomach bloating if you eat food out of a vending machine.

"But we saw this working in Japan and other developed countries. In Japan, I even saw these machines outside their convenience stores or restaurants... Vending machines are all about convenience - how close can you get to the customer when they are in need."

Indeed, JR Vending guarantees that the food provided from its machines provides the "same taste, quality and hygiene standard as those produced fresh from the various kitchens of JR Food". The very fact that the food is manufactured in a controlled environment means it is not only clean, but the quality is also consistent.

"Let's say we're producing a spaghetti dish, so we need 500 kilograms of tomatoes. There will be people who boil the tomatoes, cut and pack them. And they know exactly how much to put in.

"Also, everything is recorded, so I even know which batch the tomato comes from. We can trace back to the exact batch of raw materials we used, the handler, and the packer."

After a dish is developed, it is sent for bacterial count tests, and a nutritionist is consulted to make it a more balanced meal. The process, from research to launch, can take between two and three months, whereas a more complex dish could take up to six months.

There are, in fact, numerous hoops that businesses which sell ready meals need to jump through.

Since December 2016, food vending machines which require temperature control or in-machine food preparation had to obtain a licence from the National Environment Agency (NEA). This certification process has since been taken over by the Singapore Food Agency.

In 2017, a set of guidelines for the food and vending industry was launched at VendFest, an exhibition of nine food vending operators. It covers the hygiene guidelines for operations which involve the supply and replenishment of food and related accessories, and the design, installation and maintenance of vending machines in compliance with regulatory requirements.

Ms Chng is an early champion of establishing a set of standards and was a co-convener of the working group for the guidelines.

"Without any standards or guidelines, anyone can set up a vending machine. If they deliver bad quality food, people will lose confidence in vending machines," says Ms Chng.

TR 57 is currently still a technical reference and does not require certification to demonstrate compliance. It has, however, been submitted for review to further its development into a Singapore Standard.

Ms Chng says: "People thought I was a bit crazy. Why would I want somebody to tie our hands and tell me what to do? But we wanted to set up a proper standard and raise the standards for the whole vending sector."

All of which might explain the ironic pickle Ms Chng finds herself in when she travels. Will the food taste good? Is it prepared in a hygienic manner? Can it compete with the food she knows and loves that is dispensed from a vending machine?

Keeping it fresh

The team at JR Vending continues to push the envelope; from the launch of its first machine in a hospital in 2008, when the machine could not keep food fresh for an extended period of time and wastage was high, to the launch of its first vending machine cafe in Sengkang.

The team has also worked with international award-winning chefs including Chef Satish Arora and Chef Kim Dong. Meals that Chef Arora, known as the "Godfather of Indian cuisine", has produced for Chef-In-Box VendCafe include butter chicken, prawn chettinad, chicken korma, mixed vegetable Goa-style curry, vegetable briyani and homestyle chicken curry.

Ms Chng is quick to acknowledge that it helped that Enterprise Singapore bought into her vision early, adding that it played an integral role in collaborating with other government agencies to help them buy into the concept. The first VendCafe was rolled out in 2016.

"We went to Sengkang because the residents there fit our profile - young families who are very busy with no time to cook and yet want to feed their children well. Also, Sengkang didn't have many food courts and coffee shops then."

The concept of using vending machines as an alternative way to feed the population has been on Enterprise Singapore's mind. A 2015 Productive Business Formats Study commissioned by Enterprise Singapore found that vending machines use 70 to 90 per cent fewer workers than a typical food stall and have a relatively smaller footprint, which reduces rental cost.

The study also noted that these machines are scalable and can be easily deployed to areas where there is demand.

Enterprise Singapore also supported the investment costs for equipment and technology, process and workflow improvements and R&D for the development of the meals.

Today, JR Vending's machines are installed in hospitals, tertiary institutions, schools, factories, and even hotels. There are more than 10 Chef-in-Box Vendcafes dotted throughout the island, including Genting Hotel Jurong, the bowling centre at Temasek Club and Suntec Convention Centre.

One of JR Vending's machines located at Suntec Convention Centre

Vendcafes popping up this month will be located at Changi Airport Terminals 1 and 3 and in HDB blocks in Jurong West, Punggol, Tampines and Choa Chu Kang.

Feeding the elderly

Even as the team continues to refine the existing product, it is also taking on a new challenge: feeding the elderly, as part of FoodInnovate's Food for Elders programme. FoodInnovate was announced in April 2018 and is one of the initiatives under the Food Manufacturing Industry Transformation Map which was launched in 2016.

"FoodInnovate was created to drive post-harvest innovation," says Bernice Tay, director of food manufacturing division at Enterprise Singapore.

"The thinking behind this is simple; for Singapore food brands to remain competitive on the global stage, we need to innovate food products and solutions that can provide real value for consumers. It is also important for our companies to be forward thinking and create food for the future."

A recent study commissioned by Enterprise Singapore found that at least one-third of food manufacturers are already innovating, be it through the use of healthier ingredients or the creation of products catering to niche sectors, according to Ms Tay.

Ms Chng is creating food for the future in more ways than one.

"I'm also getting old, I thought I'd better plan some nice meals for myself. By the time we plan and launch, maybe it's time for me to eat this too!" she says with a laugh.

JR Vending is working with a local polytechnic and hospital to produce meals in a range of different textures: soft and bite-sized, minced, moist and pureed.

These meals will also be packed with higher nutrient density, to be achieved by fortifying certain nutrients and optimising the use of functional ingredients to give additional nutritional value to the meal.

Notably, Enterprise Singapore has ramped up efforts this year to help consumer brands connect with end-consumers directly.

"Traditionally, most of Enterprise Singapore's efforts have been more business-to-business," says Ms Tay. This year, however, Enterprise Singapore curated a series of lifestyle pop-ups to help companies go into new Asian markets for the first time.

"The pop-up series is unique because it not only brings together lifestyle companies in the food manufacturing, food services and retail industries, but also enables these consumer brands to connect with end- consumers directly. Singapore companies will be able to expand brand visibility and test market receptivity over a period of time via a structured platform, and engage in business discussions with in-market distributors and investors."

Over 60 Singapore food and retail companies participated. The four pop-ups in Manila, Tokyo, Bangkok and Jakarta will see these Singapore companies reach 2.8 million overseas consumers over a six-month period, which kicked off in September and wraps up in February next year.

Start small

For all her big ideas, Ms Chng is a proponent of starting small.

"I'm still very traditional. I feel that for food, you need to get acceptance, figure out what your signature dishes are, who your customer is, and what your positioning is. And of course, all things start with a problem statement. And from there, OK, we know this thing does not work. So we change and we keep changing."

JR Group CEO Jocelyn Chng

It of course helps that Ms Chng has an uncanny ability to, in her words, "smell" opportunities before the rest of the industry jumps onto the bandwagon.

There is also a lot of grit involved, especially within the F&B sector, with its notoriously challenging operating environment.

"There are a lot of fancy food concepts now. But if people don't believe in them or you just do a pop-up to try, it's not going to last. People behind the concept need to keep making it work. It's not like you open up a shop and you make your money back in three or six months. If you have a new concept, you must really believe in it and put your effort and resources into it.

"Do we start small or go 100 per cent at one go? My answer is we have to go through the testing and the research and see what is best and whether the concept can work before we roll it out. But the person who has the vision has to continue to believe in the vision, and then carry this to all the people around him or around her."