Well, thank God that you can still get Chicken Rice for $2.50 a pop in at least 3 out of 5 stalls in Singapore. CASE did a survey and came up with this finding. Not surprisingly, these can only be found in non-air-conditioned food centers. Anecdotal evidence will also tell us that in air-conditioned food centers, the $2.50 chicken rice place is a rarity. If it exists, you'd probably get a lean serving with lots of fat, which suits some taste buds, but certainly not the health conscious.
Unfortunately, I eat out in an air-con food centre most of the time and that has seen my daily food expenses soar like an eagle. Going out of your way to get a $2.50 plate of chicken rice, or mixed rice, or any food or drinks for that matter at these places, which are way lower than what you would get at a Kopi Tiam operated food court, is not practical, time and traveling expenses-wise.
I live in Sengkang and there just aren't many food centres that isn't air-conditioned. Even the new neighbourhood food centre in the vicinity of Buangkok MRT station is air-conditioned (and run by Kopi Tiam). And even for those food centres that aren't air-conditioned in Sengkang, the prices are not that economical either. Perhaps it has got to do with how long you have been in business. The newer food centers seem to always charge newer economy prices - a la Kopi Tiam, which rarely is economic for heartlanders like me. The older ones tend to charge prices more reflective of 10, 20 years ago, notwithstanding the increases in raw material prices in recent times. There must be something to be said for people who have been operating their food businesses on their own for some time now compared to people who are managed by the organised F&B establishments such as Kopi Tiam.
So dare I say that inflation is not only a function of raw material prices, fuel and electricity, it is also a function of the "Kopi Tiam effect" - large organisations of food management companies bidding astronomical prices for many a food centre and then passing on the costs down the line finally to the consumer? Well, it may be unfair to blame Kopi Tiam. The Banquet chain, the Koufu chain, and even the NTUC Foodfare chain are all in on the same modus operandi. That's why you will never find a plate of chicken rice priced anything below $3 in places managed by them. I have witnessed the price of a piece of roti prata go from 60 cents to 80 cents and is now 90 cents. You want egg in it? That'll be $1.50 a piece. That means that an egg costs 60 cents! It must be premium egg they are using. Even in inflationary times like this, an egg in the supermarket can be priced as low as 20 cents - cheaper if you buy in bulk, which is what food operators do. They must be using a different, perhaps more sophisticated, calculator than any that I have ever owned in school. We need a 'Dell effect' like never before.
Unfortunately, these food centre management chains are becoming more the rule than the exception, at least in the newer Heartland Towns such as Sengkang, Buangkok and Punggol in the East. I suppose the story is the same in the North and the West of the island. But as long as they draw the crowds (and the eateries that are run by them do draw the crowds because they are conveniently located in places that Singaporeans practise their favourite pass-time - shopping), they can price their food anything they want. Heck, some are even collecting money for the takeaway meal boxes. Takeway diners do not take up the limited seats in their food courts. That counts as a savings as well as increased opportunity for more sit-in diners, doesn't it? That means more business and consequently more profit$. But they don't see things this way. The mentality is different compared to those that operate their own foodstalls in the heartlands.
I think what is missing, really, is effective competition. These organised food businesses haven't taken the 'C' in 'Competition' out of their vocabulary. They have replaced it with the 'C' in 'Corporate' objectives and 'Corporate' strategy of behaving as one entity, so when one operator raises his prices, all the rest are duty bound to raise theirs too. Its just like a Cartel. One would wish that they would practice more corporate social responsibility, but that does not seem to be high on their agenda.
Image source: morgueFile.com. Author: Ajay Kumar Singh