Tuesday , October 26 2021

The Big Read: Through thick and thin waistlines – the case of enduring love of Singaporeans with fast food


SINGAPORE – When American Shake Shack opened its doors at the Jewel Changi airport in April, Watt Zhong Qing, 29, was one of the first in line.

Part-time service staff consume fast food about four times a week.

He said that in 2013, when the Filipino fast food chain Jollibee arrived here for the first time, he made a queue of 3.5 hours just to taste.

"It was worth it," said the gastronomic enthusiast whose affinity for fast food began when he was 10 and his aunt bought the McDonald's Happy Meal which came with a toy.

Nowadays, long queues can still be seen whenever new fast food players arrive in town, as was seen recently with the opening of Shake Shack and A & W at Jewel Changi Airport.

The new flavors introduced by fast food chains also tend to generate a lot of excitement, with offers sometimes sold out in just a few weeks, such as McDonald's Nasi Lemak Burger.

And sometimes it's not just the food: McDonald's Hello Kitty fever in 2000 saw thousands of Singaporeans spend hours in line to get special souvenirs from the fast-food giant. About 2.8 million toys were sold within 40 days, according to the National Library Board (NLB) online encyclopedia.

Based on the latest statistics from SingStat, fast food establishments in Singapore generated a total of approximately $ 1.1 billion in operating revenue in 2016.

The Singaporeans' seemingly insatiable appetite for hamburgers, chips and the like has helped the fast food industry follow the general trend of the food and beverage industry (F & B), which saw a 10 percent decline in sales from 2000 to 2018 .

In the same period, sales of fast food stores grew by 29%, based on data from SingStat. In contrast, restaurant sales fell by 20%, while those in other places – such as cafes – fell by 13%.

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Jewel Changi Opening Day (7)

Visitors queue at the Shake Shack at the Jewel Changi Airport on April 17, 2019. (Photo: Jeremy Long)


The situation in Singapore contrasts with the United States – the home country of many global fast food chains that families around the world have come to know.

According to media reports, American millennials are avoiding these chains, while a saturated market and rising labor costs are contributing to the profitability of these companies. Other factors include growing health awareness and competition from neighborhood restaurants that serve the same fare, experts said.

However, in Singapore, despite increased national awareness about the need to eat healthily, many can not keep away from their fast food.

Take Lord Muhammad Hafiz for example. The self-described health conscious individual does and does other exercises about three times a week.

But that did not stop the 30-year-old administrative consultant from indulging in the guilty pleasure of fast food at least once or twice a week.

His "weak spot" for fast food began as he grew up, when he and his friends frequented fast food chains after a football or rugby game.

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Similarly, football fan Lance Ling, 32, gives in to his "craving for fried food" almost three times a week.

"It's a convenience thing, actually. Even now, McDonald's is downstairs (from his house) and it's easy (to buy food), "said Ling, who works in the naval industry and recently moved to Buangkok with his wife.


Fast food chains are generally defined as those that sell mass-produced items such as burgers and fries, and serve quickly.

Singapore's love of fast food began in 1968, when the first A & W restaurant opened its doors in the old Malaysia-Singapore Airlines building on Robinson Road. Then came Colonel Sanders in 1976 and then Ronald McDonald in 1979 with his first store at Liat Towers in Orchard. The Burger King arrived in 1982.

A & W Rows

Customers wait patiently in line to enter the A & W store at Jewel Changi Airport. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)

A sign of what's to come, the number of customers who attended the opening of McDonald's was so great that a world record was set to serve the highest volume of hamburgers in a single day, according to the web encyclopedia of NLB.

The record was only broken in the 1990s when McDonald's was opened in Beijing, China.

In the last decades, the major fast food chains have grown rapidly in Singapore.

For example, there are now 135 McDonald's stores and 86 KFC gas stations across the island. Burger King will be opening its 50th store in Singapore in July, its spokeswoman said.

Another household name, Long John Silver, opened for the first time in Singapore in 1983.

Between 2016 and 2018, it expanded from 19 to 26 points of sale here, with sales rising by around 30%, its spokesman said.

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Many other international brands have also entered the Singapore market, including Pizza Hut, Popeyes, Carl's Junior and Texas Chicken.

But not everything is easy: Brands such as Milano's Pizza, Hardee's, Wendy's and Taco Bell have discovered that the situation was difficult and they left the Singapore market.

A & W also suffered the same fate – closing its five remaining stores in 2003 – before returning to the republic with much fanfare.

A & W's international business development manager Sally See said that in the future the network would be opening new outlets at a "comfortable pace."

"We want to make sure that the outlets are working well and optimally, before expanding further," she said.

Based on data from Euromonitor International, McDonald's had the largest market share (40%) in Singapore last year – well ahead of its closest rival, the KFC (13%).

In its report, the company included the 7-eleven chain of convenience stores, which came in third with Subway, both with 6% market share, followed by Burger King (4%), followed by Pizza Hut. Percent). The Soup Spoon, Pasta Mania and Long John Silver's have a market share of about 2%.

Burger King

File photo of a Burger King outlet. (Photo: Facebook / BurgerKingSG)


Experts say fast-food chains do particularly well in Singapore for several reasons. These include the fact that the healthy eating movement here is not as prevalent as in the United States and other European countries, and an English-speaking population exposed to international cultures.

In Singapore, fast food is not much more expensive compared to local food, such as food from the street vendor, noted the experts.

Karthik Bakthavathsalem, a Nanyang Polytechnic B & B professor, said that in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, local food options are much cheaper than fast food.

There are also local fast-food chains in those countries, such as Jollibee in the Philippines, that prevent global companies from accumulating excess market share, said Lucas Tok, marketing professor at Singapore Polytechnic.

Given Singapore's "highest level of consumer-supported awareness," Deputy Professor Lynda Wee of the Nanyang Business School said that the Republic does an "excellent" test for fast food outlets to expand or try out new products .

Long John Silver, for example, does just that.

Catering to the preferences and preferences of Singaporeans helps in their preparation for overseas expansion, his spokesman said, adding,

Being a multi-racial country with a variety of religions, Singapore is a gastronomic capital with a wide variety of cuisines available, despite its small land mass.

The culture of dining out among Singaporeans can also be a contributing factor, said Guan Chong, a marketing professor at the University of Singapore's Social Sciences.

According to a Nielsen survey of 2018, 55% of Singaporeans consume weekly, compared with 51% in 2015.

In the US, only about 33 percent dined out, noted Dr. Guan. Nielsen's Singapore-based survey also found that 76 percent preferred to sponsor fast-food outlets, up from 66 percent three years ago.

Experts have said that the convenience of fast food is a major attraction for Singapore's customers as it fits into their hectic lifestyle. In addition to the relative accessibility and speed of service, fast food establishments are strategically located to take advantage of a large catchment of potential customers.

kfc singapore the tank 2

(Photo: Jovi Ho)

McDonald's is especially "aggressive" when it comes to location strategy, said Samuel Tan, manager of the Temasek Polytechnic diploma course in retail management.

The market leader has a comprehensive team to select the best location for new outlets, he noted.

For Nielsen's survey, respondents cited convenience or accessibility (58%), food taste (50%) and low price (48%) as the top reasons to shop at fast food outlets, Nielsen said. executive director of consumer insights Garick Kea.

"Close proximity to the home is also important for consumers who need time. So far, acceptance of these convenience options has been stronger in mature markets, and Singapore, being a developed market, is seeing this growth, "said Kea.

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In contrast, the restaurants are located only in certain places. "So the economies of scale are not there," Karthik said.

The assembly line model of a fast food chain offers an advantage over restaurants. This helps reduce operating costs and improve efficiency without the need to hire qualified chefs for food preparation, said Dr. Guan.

Successful and targeted marketing has also helped to improve the appeal of fast food.

Derrick Chew, a brand specialist and food and beverage consultant, said: "(Mc Donald's) Happy Meal is an example. The culture already ingrained is that McDonald's is part of your life … It is nostalgic for many Singaporeans who grew up in that period. "

Upon returning to Singapore, A & W believes that its brand "occupies a special place in the hearts of many in Singapore, who now associate visits to A & W with very good childhood memories," said Ms. See.

Jewel Changi Opening Day (13)

The queue at A & W at the Jewel Changi airport on its official opening day on April 17, 2019. (Photo: Jeremy Long)


While every fast food business wants a slice of the pie, being able to sustain growth is not a piece of cake.

Strong competition has led to the failure of many global brands trying to establish themselves in Singapore.

It was the main reason that led A & W, despite having a pioneering advantage here, to leave in 2003, noted the experts.

With competitors marketing their offerings far better than A & W, the chain disappeared in the dark, said Mr. Tok.

"With fast food, the main factor is convenience. If you are obscure and do not promote yourself, forget to remind people that you are there and that it is convenient to get there, "he added.

While several fast food chains have thrived in Singapore, it will not be easy for new entrants – or in the case of A & W, those seeking a return – to sign up.

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"The great players are well-grounded and have already saturated our small island state with many outlets and built their loyal customers. The dominant market-share strategy of the fast-food industry is a bit of a barrier and threatens new entrants, "said Tan, of Temasek Polytechnic.

The need for fast food chains to be accessible also means that new players need the resources to rapidly increase and distribute installation and operating costs, said Adjunct Associate Professor Wee.

But they generally lack the resources and capital to sustain themselves in a highly competitive market, Tan noted.

Some fast-food chains have tried to cut costs by using technology. For example, introducing self-service kiosks reduces labor dependency, while working with food delivery applications helps maintain a market presence.

Food delivery platforms have helped Texas Chicken reach more customers, said Eugene Lim, chief marketing officer of Select Group, which manages Texas Chicken in Singapore.

Customers at Texas Chicken Restaurant at RWS

Clients seen at Texas Chicken's new restaurant at Resorts World Sentosa. (Photo: Tang See the Kit)

However, the use of delivery applications would ultimately change customer behavior, he noted. "In the long term, there will be an impact (in fast food chains) if all customers choose to stay at home and place the order. In fact, it's already starting now," said Lim.

Ultimately, it's the service and menu offerings that matter, experts said.

McDonald's new menu offerings, as well as its ability to maintain its service level to generate greater customer satisfaction than other players, have helped the fast food giant to become a clear market leader, said Tan.

Despite facing high operating costs, labor shortages and quick taste for customers, fast food chains here have often been adaptive and responsive to change – especially those that have thrived, experts said.

It's not just about giving local tastes a twist like Burger King's Hainanese Tendergrill Chicken Burgers, or McDonald's Durian McFlurry or KFC's Mala Chicken.

Fast food chains have also introduced new food items according to the latest flavors, such as McDonald's Fried Egg Salad or KFC's Korean-inspired Yang Yeum Chicken.

There have also been partnerships with other international brands, such as Hello Kitty toys from McDonald's, or global events such as KFC's Ronaldo Feast during the 2014 World Cup.

Fast food chains have also periodically renewed the appearance of their outlets.

In addition to the self-service kiosks and online food delivery service, investments in kitchen automatic cooking machines also helped fast food chains cut costs.

To serve an increasingly health conscious population, fast food chains have also launched healthier options on their menus.

Photo of food options by the Health Promotion Board

An exhibition of healthier food choices. (Photo: Facebook / Health Promotion Council)


Despite these efforts, fast food is still rich in sodium, fats, cholesterol and calories – all known to contribute to health problems like obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

In 2004, the release of a documentary, Super Size Me, sparked a backlash against the US fast food industry.

He relied on filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, who ate McDonald's food for 30 consecutive days, and gained 11 kg as a result.

Aware of the adverse impact of fast food consumption on health, authorities around the world have taken steps to restrict marketing and advertising of such foods to young children.

In the UK, YouTube ads for brands such as McDonald's and KFC have recently been banned by an advertising watchdog for targeting children under the age of 16.

This followed the ban on junk food advertisements on London's transport networks earlier this year.

The Australian state of Queensland has also banned junk food ads from this year with plans to eliminate these ads over time.

In Singapore, authorities introduced in 2015 a set of advertising guidelines where food and beverage outlets, including fast food chains, are not allowed to advertise unhealthy products – such as sugar and soft drinks – for children under 13 years.

Like other affluent societies, Singapore is not spared the rising rates of obesity among young people.

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By 2017, 13 percent of children in regular schools in Singapore were overweight, compared with 11 percent in 2011, said Health Minister Amy Khor last year.

So far, the fast food industry in Singapore has been spared any consumer reaction to health concerns – even after the documentary Super Size Me gained international prominence.

Karthik, a professor at Nanyang Polytechnic, believes that the impact of the film on the fast food industry in other countries would have been greater today in the age of social media.

Other experts have noted that, unlike the US, fast food is not essential in Singapore.

Still, the documentary persuaded some Singaporeans to become more aware of the food they eat and have encouraged fast food chains to offer healthier options, experts said.

Fans of fast food in Singapore have downplayed health concerns, reiterating that it's okay, as they eat in moderation and their diet is balanced.

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Hafiz, for example, said he avoids eating fried foods at home, opting for grilled or roasted meat.

Ling added, "I think it's okay if you do not eat every day … you just need to have a mixed diet for the other meals."

Although fast food joints here provide healthier alternatives, nutritionists have said that it is unclear how effective they are in encouraging consumers to eat healthier.

For starters, people who go to fast food restaurants are not willing to eat in a healthy way, said nutritionist and nutritionist Dr. Naras Lapsys.

While the nutritional value of these healthy options is not only negated because it is prepared at a fast-food diner, the sauces added to these foods can thwart its purpose.

"Sauces (which fast-food joints) placed may still be high in sugar. (There are) additional things in the meal that are not great, (the) chicken is still fried and battered, "said Dr. Lapsys.

Another nutritionist, Gladys Wong, warned that seemingly healthier options may not necessarily be so. "The salads may not necessarily be healthy, depending on the salad the client chooses to drown the salad," she said.

Vegan Salad Bowl

(Photo by Anna Pelzer in Unsplash)

"Steamed corn can be mixed with butter or margarine and salt, so it can be high in fat and sodium."


In the future, experts believe that the fast food industry here will continue to thrive.

However, it can usher in the rise of what has been called "fast casual".

An intermediate concept between fast food and casual dinners, casual fast food chains have taken off in the US, including the likes of Shake Shack and Chipotle.

These chains sell themselves offering the same quick and convenient service that consumers can get in fast food chains, but with better ingredients at slightly higher prices.

Although fast food outlets have not yet settled in Singapore, fast food chains may have to deal with them in the future, Karthik said.

Meanwhile, some are worried that the enduring popularity of fast food among Singaporeans may come at the expense of street vendors and food culture.

However, food blogger Leslie Tay felt that street vendors can learn from the fast food model, such as mass production of consistent quality food in a short time.

Street vendors today "still do not have the know-how," said Dr. Tay, 50, who runs a popular cookery blog, ieatishootipost.sg.

hawker center ang mo kio

Archive photo of a hawker center

While he believed that the people of his generation would remain loyal to the street vendor of food, he was not so sure about the younger generation.

"(Fast food is) comfort food. It's easy, cheap and tasty, and customers can dine in air-conditioned facilities, "said Dr. Tay, who joked,

Air conditioning is very important.

Food critic and consultant KF Seetoh, who founded the Makansutra website, noted that the younger generation has grown inundated by the marketing efforts of the fast food giants.

"The fast-food stores are winning but not taking over (the local food) – not yet," he said. so (can be) rich in fats and sodium. "

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