Food vending machines in Singapore: The best and the worst

Food vending machines in Singapore: The best and the worst
The Chef-In-Box VendCafe in Pasir Ris at the void deck of Blk 766. (Photos: Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore)

Gone are the days when vending machines sold only drinks or snacks. Now, one of the latest food trends is vending machines that serve up hot food for dine on-the-go customers, with offerings ranging from sandwiches to fruits, and even full meals such as chicken rice and pasta.

Such food vending machines can be found at the most convenient of places such as void decks, schools and MRT stations. While it may be accessible and convenient, the food can lack quality in both taste and freshness.

Over the past week, Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore bought foods from five different vending machine purveyors to find out what they’re really like.

Here’s the verdict from our taste tests:

GOOD: Polar vending machine

(From left to right: A Chicken Sausage Roll, a Polar vending machine, a Curry Potato Puff)

Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore tried Polar’s signature “Curry Potato Puff” and “Chicken Sausage Roll” from its vending machine, and we were pleasantly surprised to discover that the puffs tasted exactly like the ones from Polar outlets. There’s a wide variety of pastries priced from $1.50.

Unfortunately, the Polar vending machines are currently located at places like the Mediacorp campus, Nanyang Polytechnic and the Singapore Management University (SMU), which can only be accessed by staff and students. But if you ever get the chance to, it’s definitely worth the try.

Purchasing from the Polar vending machine was also a fuss-free experience. There’s a touch screen feature for you to make your orders before you are required to pay by cash or card. The waiting time for your food to be served is about 30 seconds.

GOOD: Chef-In-Box vending machine

Some food items purchased from the VendCafe. (Clockwise: Seafood Hor Fun, Hainanese Chicken Chop with Rice + Mushroom Soup, Chicken Bolognese with Spaghetti, Braised Chicken in Duo Olive Pronto Sauce)

We were also impressed by the foods from Chef-in-Box’s VendCafe, which serves a variety of meals priced under $6 each.

The Seafood Hor Fun ($4.80) contains sliced fishcakes, prawns, chicken and vegetables, and is comparable to the ones you would get at a hawker centre. The Chicken Bolognese with Spaghetti ($4.80) and Braised Chicken in Duo Olive Pronto Sauce ($4.80) were flavourful; however, the portion of meat in these two dishes fell short of expectation. While the portions in the Hainanese Chicken Chop with Rice and Mushroom Soup ($5.20) were just right, it left our tastebuds feeling a tad bored.

Similar to Polar’s vending machines, purchasing a food item from Chef-in-Box’s VendCafe was rather seamless, with a waiting time of about three minutes for each meal. While we found its cashless transaction methods innovative, we realised that it might be a problem for teenagers and senior citizens who don’t have credit cards and don’t top-up that much value into their EZ-Link cards.

NEUTRAL: Hotbake 24/7 sandwich vending machine

Clockwise: A Hotbake 24/7 Sandwich vending machine, a Sichuan Pepper sandwich, a Tuna Salad sandwich.

Hotbake 24/7 introduced Singapore’s first toasted sandwich vending machine back in 2002, and its machines can still be found at schools and hospitals across the island today. While the sandwiches – such as the Sichuan Pepper and Tuna salad sandwiches that we tried – are not quite the kind you would get from cafes and Subway joints, they didn’t completely disappoint, either.

The multi-grain breads used in the sandwiches, priced at $5 each, were toasted to crunchy perfection and the fillings were satisfactory in terms of portion and flavour.

It takes up to 90 seconds for a sandwich to be dispensed, and there’s also an option to purchase two sandwiches at a cheaper price. While the machine accepts both coins and notes, change will only be given in one-dollar coins.

BAD: Shiok! Pizza vending machine

From left to right: a Shiok! Pizza vending machine, a Hawaiian pizza

Yes, there are vending machines in Singapore that dispense pizza. Shiok! Pizza vending machines offer only two flavours – Hawaiian and Pepperoni – and can only be found at two locations in Singapore – Orchard Road and Nanyang Polytechnic. Honestly, we’d rather you stick to delivery pizzas.

After spending $16 on a 12-inch Hawaiian pizza, we discovered that it tasted more like ham and cheese on naan bread than actual pizza. While we don’t mind thin crusts, we weren’t sure about its limpness.

The machine uses oven-box technology to heat up its pre-cooked pizzas, and it takes about three minutes to dispense a pizza. However, purchases can only be made via contactless credit or transport cards which, like VendCafes, might be troublesome for some teenagers and senior citizens.

BAD: Dragonfruit vending machine

Clockwise: A dragonfruit vending machine, a dragonfruit, a dragonfruit drink.

Adding a refreshing twist to our review of vending machine foods is the dragonfruit vending machine. Yes, it’s a vending machine dedicated to just dragonfruits and dragonfruit juice. We were thrilled when we stumbled upon this on the basement level of The Star, near Buona Vista MRT Station. Sadly, the excitement was short-lived.

The dragonfruit ($3.50) and dragonfruit juice ($3.50) tasted far from sweet, which had been promised on the packaging. While the fruit and juice tasted fresh, they were also a tad bitter.

The machine dispenses whole dragonfruits instead of in slices, so you’ll need to have a penknife with you if you’re planning to eat it on-the-go. The items were dispensed really quickly though, and purchases can be made using coins or $2- and $5-notes.

A customer placing their order at a VendCafe.

While Singapore is definitely on its way to becoming a vending machine nation à la Japan, it still has a long way to go when it comes to catering to diverse groups of people, including those who may have physical disabilities.

For instance, automated voices could be added to cater to visually-impaired customers. It would also help if the machines had clear step-by-step instructions on how to make a purchase, complete with actual images of the foods on offer so that buyers can make a more informed decision. And, as mentioned earlier, making sure that there remains a cash option for transaction would definitely help card-less customers.

While food vending machines are without a doubt increasing in popularity in Singapore, we suggest keeping expectations low on these fuss-free options. Especially if you’re a very fussy eater.

Related stories:

Vending machine cafe in Pasir Ris will feature dishes by renowned chefs
Vending machine cafe opens at Ang Mo Kio MRT Station; Lakeside is next
Singapore’s first vending machine cafe opens in Sengkang

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