SINGAPORE - Increasing numbers of food and beverage (F&B) firms are automating their processes to deal with staff shortages, said labour chief Lim Swee Say yesterday.

Yet the trend across the industry hides a multitude of ways that firms are going about using machinery in what has always been a labour-intensive industry.

Some of the approaches were on display at an NTUC Learning Journey event at fast-food restaurant Yellow Submarines that attracted around 200 owners and representatives from about 40 F&B operations yesterday.

Chinese restaurant chain TungLok has been using three semi-automatic stir-frying devices for its catering arm. The machine allows 10kg of ingredients - be it noodles, rice, seafood or other dishes - to be cooked in just minutes.

Executive chairman Andrew Tjioe said: "Two months ago, we had to cater for 5,000 people for an event. Without the machine, my chefs would have been so stressed and the results might have been inconsistent.

"But after using the machine, my chefs said it was so easy," he added.

Mr Tjioe said he has ordered four more of the machines from a research centre in Shenzhen, China.

They cost from $35,000 to $50,000 each and can be calibrated for such factors as heat and the speed and amount of stirring needed.

Tunglok claimed 70 per cent of the cost under the Productivity and Innovation Credit (PIC) scheme.

Cheesesteak restaurant Yellow Submarines, which opened a year ago, uses what it calls a combi oven.

This simultaneously allows baking, steaming and braising while also keeping food warm. That has also meant it can cut its manpower needs by about 40 per cent.

Mr Lim said that small and medium- sized enterprises (SMEs), including those in the F&B line, now seem more receptive towards labour-saving devices.

The NTUC started its Inclusive Growth Programme (IGP) - a $100 million fund to drive productivity improvements - three years ago.

"The response (then) was not that encouraging, as many enterprises were still hoping the Government might one day reverse its manpower policy. They were waiting for a U-turn," Mr Lim said.

"But I'm happy to say that in three years, more and more enterprises... have come to realise this is a new reality we all have to live with. As a result, under the IGP, more and more SMEs from different sectors are now coming forward."

The IGP has helped 270 productivity projects in the hotels and F&B sector, benefiting more than 25,000 workers, whose wages have improved by an average of 11 per cent.

Yellow Submarines workers have received more than 8 per cent wage rises due to the productivity increase, said owner Andy Hoon.

A combination of the IGP and PIC meant he paid about 18 per cent for the $16,000 combi oven.

"The programme can be customised; most importantly, the consistency is very good," he said.

The F&B industry here has more than 6,600 establishments, employing more than 190,000 workers.