Published on 10 Jun 2023

More budget meals coming, but Singaporeans also value taste and nutrition

More budget meal options are in the works for Singaporeans, though some are willing to pay more to satisfy their palate.

The Housing Board, in collaboration with the Government Technology Agency, launched the BudgetMealGoWhere website to help residents locate HDB coffee shops offering budget meals within 2km of their residence.

HDB told The Straits Times that since the launch on May 19, there have been more than 100,000 unique visitors to the site.

To boost its outreach, it will be rolling out advertisements on the digital display panels around housing estates.

Participating hawkers also display the budget meal decal at their stalls.

For now, 46 coffee shops are listed. The budget options include full meals that cost between $3 and $3.50, and hot drinks at $1 to $1.15 on average.

Professor Boh Wai Fong, deputy dean of Nanyang Technological University's Nanyang Business School, said an initiative to increase transparency of prices and help consumers search for cheaper alternatives is useful as it empowers them with more information.

This is not the first initiative enabling consumers to search for budget stores or items.

Similar initiatives include the Price Kaki app launched by the Consumers Association of Singapore in 2019.

It helps consumers look for cheap items and compare prices across stores, including for groceries, household items and hawker food.

As this deal-finder concept is not new, the BudgetMealGoWhere site will likely be used by consumers, Prof Boh said.

However, the elderly, who are not as digitally savvy, may not be able to access the platform easily.

Given that the Government is providing assistance to train them through schemes such as the Silver Generation Ambassadors programme - where volunteers link them with networks and resources - they can still potentially benefit from the tool.

They can also learn about budget options through their family, she added.

From May, all HDB rental coffee shops due for renewal need to provide four budget meals and two budget drinks as a condition for the renewal of their three-year tenancy.

With this change, HDB expects the listings on the portal to increase to about 130 by the end of 2023, and 374 by 2026.

It is also engaging operators of non-HDB rental coffee shops and other agencies to offer budget meals at more eating establishments.

There are 776 coffee shops in Singapore, of which 374 are rented out by HDB to private operators, and 402 are privately owned.

All Kopitiam outlets will be reflected on BudgetMealGoWhere in the coming months, said FairPrice Group general manager for Kopitiam Hoo Hoe Keat.

It has more than 80 outlets including foodcourts, coffee shops, hawker centres and food stalls. Of these, about eight in 10 that are located in the heartland have been offering budget meals since 2013. These budget meals are indicated on menu boards or posters at participating stalls. All Kopitiam outlets will be reflected on BudgetMealGoWhere in the coming months.

The FairPrice Group will also continue to offer concessionary meals at 33 Rice Garden stalls around Singapore.

The National Environment Agency (NEA) told ST that it is looking to participate in the BudgetMealGoWhere portal.

There are more than 6,000 cooked food stallholders in hawker centres whose stall tenancies are managed by NEA and its appointed operators.

NEA said while it does not regulate prices of the cooked food sold, its current approach is to provide hawkers with a conducive environment to set affordable food prices.

Stalls in existing hawker centres are offered through open tenders with no minimum bids.

A stall will be awarded to the person with the highest bid, even if it is below the assessed market rent.

For new hawker centres operated by socially conscious enterprises, NEA requires operators to propose how they will keep meals affordable in their tender proposals.

Other food establishments are also following suit.

Chang Cheng Mee Wah has 30 coffee shops, with six under HDB. It has plans to roll out budget meals for its non-HDB coffee shops.

Koufu, which has 10 coffee shops rented from HDB, will also encourage its other coffee shops and foodcourt tenants to offer budget meals. Price isn't everything

When ST spoke to about 15 hawkers and several diners at 20 coffee shops, most hawkers offering budget meals said they have not seen high demand for them.

Diners also said they are willing to pay more for their choices.

Madam Vothi Kim Nguyen, who manages Tanjong Rhu Wanton Noodle at Cola Food coffee shop at Block 260 Ang Mo Kio Street 21, offers char siew noodle soup at $3.50 as a budget meal.

However, the 36-year-old said: "Many customers would rather pay 50 cents more for the signature wonton noodles, which come with more ingredients." Madam Vothi Kim Nguyen said patrons would rather pay 50 cents more for her signature wanton noodle than her $3.50 budget char siew noodle soup.

Taxi driver Lim Kee Hock, 64, who ordered a $4.50 dumpling soup, said: "I will just get what I like to eat."

The coffee shop also offers budget vegetarian bee hoon at $3.50, but 47-year-old Liu Xiao Mi of Superior Green Vegetarian stall said: "It's mostly regulars here and they go for their usual orders.

"An auntie or two may buy the budget meal, but I don't see any visible increase."

Mr Bryan Ng, 28, who runs Joyful Chicken Rice at the same eatery, has seen few takers for his budget meals - chicken congee and chicken macaroni at $3 each. Most customers go for other options, such as chicken rice which costs $3.80. Mr Bryan Ng has seen few takers for his budget meals. Most customers go for other options like chicken rice costing $3.80.

Similarly, Ms Candy Ha, 53, who works at Canopy Coffee Club in the same coffee shop, said customers still go for their usual beverages.

The budget offerings are kopi-o and teh-o at $1.10 each, a slight drop from $1.20 previously. The same beverages are sold at $1 at the Ang Mo Kio Central Food Centre.

Mr Robert Tang, who is in his 80s, ordered coffee with milk at $1.30 from Canopy Coffee Club.

The retired civil servant, who lives in a three-room flat at Block 258 nearby, said: "I usually patronise the coffee shop at Block 107, where there is more variety, even though there are no budget meals."

Mr Kenny Chia, 58, a committee member of the Whampoa Market Association, which just launched a Makan @ Whampoa magazine compiling popular hawker fare in the vicinity, said many Singaporeans are willing to travel some distance or join long queues for their favourite food, which may not be the cheapest.

He added: "Food in our hawker centres is generally affordable. Some customers will even order the biggest portion or pay more for extra ingredients if they are good."

Dr Teo Kay Key from the Institute of Policy Studies said: "Singaporeans prioritise food quite a lot, and many are willing to pay slightly more for food that tastes good."

She added: "Many people are also quite health-conscious. So even if they pay a visit to the location offering budget meals, they may end up buying something else that is slightly more expensive if the budget option does not meet their taste or nutrition criteria."

Dr Teo, who was key researcher of the Makan Index 2.0 project, which studied the cost of 18 common food and drink items across 829 food establishments, said the website would help people to find budget meals easily but needs to have a wide reach.

She checked with a few people just to see how the spread of budget meals was like.

For now, most people she asked have not found more than one or two locations that are within a 2km radius of their public or private residence, she said.

"I think if people do know about the website, they would check it at least once just to find out where they can find cheap meals...

"But given that the implementation of the budget meals scheme now is just for government-leased coffee shops, people are likely to not find that many results near them," she added.

"They may prefer to pay slightly more to eat at the coffee shop downstairs rather than walk 2km for the budget meal."

HDB said it is mindful of the need to strike a balance between business sustainability for operators and the need for affordable food options.

Hence, operators are given the flexibility to propose and set the prices of budget meals.

These are then reviewed by HDB to ensure they are reasonable and affordable when compared with nearby options.

HDB also offers a rental discount of 5 per cent off the market valuation-based renewal rents for a year if budget offerings are implemented.

Prof Boh said the rental discount is quite small, compared with the higher cost of ingredients and operations faced by hawkers. They must evaluate if the potential increase in volume will bring enough revenue to offset their cost.

"Hawkers may resort to reducing serving sizes to keep the prices low - also known as 'shrinkflation'... along with inflation and gradual rising cost," she added.

Dr Teo said profit margins and higher business volume may not always be correlated.

"If the budget meals are being offered on very thin margins, the hawkers will still not be able to earn that much even if there are many customers buying the meals," she said.

"So it really depends on whether the cost of the offered meal is sustainable economically for the business."

Mr Hong Poh Hin, 75, chairman of Foochow Coffee Restaurant and Bar Merchants Association, which represents more than 400 coffee shops, encourages members - including non-HDB tenants - to offer budget meals.

"Most Singaporeans go for the taste and not the price," he said.

"However, there are still the needy ones who would benefit from these budget meals. Even with rising costs, offering one or two budget items will not cut profit margins drastically."

Source: The Straits Times