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Business Advice

Helping restaurants save time on slicing and dicing

A new breed of companies has emerged to help food and beverage operators who cannot find enough workers to do work, from cleaning dishes to serving customers
The Straits Times - February 25, 2013
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Helping restaurants save time on slicing and dicing Project Kitchenomics founder Mr Lee inspecting pre-cut cabbage to make sure it is ready for sale and delivery. -- ST PHOTO: RAJ NADARAJAN

VEGETABLE supplier Desmond Lee, 40, saw pre-cut vegetables lining shelves in supermarkets in Holland during a trip there in 2010 and an idea sprang to mind.

"Why not cut and wash vegetables for restaurants?" wondered the father of three. "I knew of the labour shortage and thought it was a good time."

"Rents were going up. Restaurants might want more seating capacity instead of having a huge kitchen," added Mr Lee. He went around scouting for machinery.

He set up Project Kitchenomics in 2011, rented a factory site in Admiralty and invested $2 million in 10 machines from Holland, Germany and Taiwan.

The money came from profits from his vegetable supply company as well as a grant from Spring Singapore under a scheme which encourages the development of technology innovation. These machines wash, dry and package vegetables. There are dedicated gadgets for dicing and shredding too.

"It's difficult for us to get workers too but fewer workers are needed to man machines compared to the restaurants to get the same output. One person can manage two machines," he said.

The initial difficulty, said the Ngee Ann Polytechnic diploma holder, was in selling the idea to restaurant owners. A 1kg bag of diced carrots is about double the price of the same weight of the unprocessed vegetable.

"The price was a hurdle. Businesses kept comparing our prices with the price of raw carrots," he said. "We were losing money but we knew we just needed customers to warm up to the idea."

His first client, an airline services company which inked a deal to buy diced and sliced potatoes, came in late 2011. Project Kitchenomics now has 250 customers, including Salad Stop! and Nando's, said Mr Lee, whose first job out of school was as a financial analyst in a commodities market.

Sick of looking at stocks for soya beans and coffee, he left after about three years to join the dot.com boom - a period in the late 1990s that was marked by the surge of Internet-based firms.

He opened an online vegetable grocery store in 2000. It was successful but business waned after a few years when supermarkets here ventured online too. That was when he branched out to supply vegetables to restaurants.

Setting up Project Kitchenomics to sell pre-cut, pre- washed and pre-packed vegetables, he said, seemed to be the next logical step. He now has a turnover of about $100,000 a month. His bestsellers: pre-cut and pre-washed onions, potatoes and carrots. "People don't like to peel those. It's time-consuming and doesn't really add that much value to a finished product," said Mr Lee. He expects a 20 per cent jump in clients in the next six months.

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