May 24, 2009
Making tracks for a quick bite
Convenience is drawing commuters to food outlets in MRT stations. And we are not just talking about snacks but full, hearty meals
By Huang Lijie
Diners with an appetite for unconventional eating spots are travelling not to far flung corners of the island but to the nearest MRT station these days.
And no wonder, since more than 110 food outlets offering tasty treats from freshly baked brownies to the popular Filipino dish chicken adobo are available along the rail network here.
Recent additions to this list include NTUC Foodfare food courts, which opened at Simei and Sembawang MRT stations earlier this year.
For commuters who patronise these trackside food and beverage (F&B) outlets, the convenience of grabbing a quick bite on the go or a takeaway meal for later is clearly a draw.
Ms Faridah Abdullah, 30, a data entry officer, for example, often eats dinner at the Pasir Ris MRT station because it is near her home and she can hop on a train and head for her night-shift job after the meal.
Similarly, Ms Sheng Jiang, 34, a childcare centre teacher, picks up breakfast buns from Q Bread bakery and soya bean milk from the Mr Bean stall at the Choa Chu Kang station on her way to work.
Both MRT operators, SMRT and SBS Transit, say F&B shops were introduced to train stations to enhance the experience of commuting.
On the North South Line and the East West Line, which are operated by SMRT, over 100 of its almost 500 retail stores are F&B outlets.
Its gastronomic offerings are most varied at mini malls in its stations, dubbed Xchanges, such as Tanjong Pagar Xchange and Boon Lay Xchange. Both opened last March and have on average 10 food establishments each, including casual restaurant Lerk Thai Bistro at Tanjong Pagar and a Ya Kun Kaya Toast cafe at Boon Lay.
As for the North East Line, which was launched in 2003 and run by SBS Transit, about 14 per cent of its commercial space is taken up by F&B businesses such as bubble tea kiosk Cup Walker at Sengkang and bakery store Ohaiyo at Serangoon.
According to regulatory guidelines, most underground stations, such as those on the North East Line, tend to have fewer retail spaces.
While it might not be common for eateries to open in MRT stations, those that do and whom LifeStyle spoke to cite the large volume of human traffic and high brand visibility at these locations as compelling factors.
Daily rail ridership increased from 1.435 million passengers in the previous financial year to 1.564 million passengers in the last financial year.
With such a large market reach, many of these retailers find themselves doing brisk business.
Mr Christopher Ang, 35, director of casual Asian eatery Just Acia, says the monthly turnover at its 150-seat outlet at Dhoby Ghaut MRT station, averages $150,000, which is higher than its two other branches at Suntec City and Downtown East.
Similarly, Mr Paul Liu, 25, co-owner of brownie shop P.Osh in Dhoby Xchange, says business at the store has been doing well enough for him to consider expanding elsewhere.
This is a marked change from two years ago when the exchange station was in the news due to complaints from previous tenants about poor shopper traffic.
Such buoyant business is not limited to stations that are major nodes of transportation such as MRT interchanges.
The spokesman for soya bean chain Mr Bean, with 21 of its 52 outlets located at MRT stations such as Bukit Gombak and Raffles Place, says its takeaway kiosks at MRT stops in the CBD area are busier on weekdays while outlets at outerlying MRT stations bustle on weekends.
The increasing popularity of eateries at MRT stations has even sparked a price war among three stalls selling chicken rice at Boon Lay Xchange.
The food kiosk QuickServe, which used to sell its chicken rice for $1.99, slashed its price to $1.40 a month ago, while the other two stores, Ananas Cafe and The Cafe Lobby, each sell a plate of chicken rice for $1.50.
Despite the stiff competition, each of the three outlets has its own group of customers and lines form during meal times.
Generally cheaper rents have also prompted F&B retailers to set up shop at MRT stations.
According to the owners of eateries whom LifeStyle spoke to, rental rates for a similarly sized food outlet in a downtown MRT station could cost between 10 and 40 per cent less than at a nearby shopping centre.
Beyond attracting commuters on the move, dining establishments at MRT stations also appeal to those working nearby.
Mr Jimmy Cheow, 27, a bank relationship manager says: 'I prefer to lunch at Dhoby Xchange instead of eateries in nearby shopping centres because it is less crowded. And the quality of food at Ernie's, an eatery in Dhoby Xchange, which I often go to is pretty good.'
Train track treats
Dhoby Ghaut MRT
Where: B1-36/37, tel: 6334-4498, open: 11am to 9pm daily
What: This chicken rice outlet, which seats about 25, offers both roasted and poached chicken rice (from $2.50).
Where: B1-12, tel: 6338-9804, open: 7am to 9pm weekdays, 9am to 10pm weekends
What: This casual eatery, which seats about 50, serves everything from curry puffs and kueh salat (50 cents each) at breakfast to Indonesian grilled chicken ($5.50) and beef kebabs ($6.50).
On weekends, Filipino dishes such as chicken adobo ($5.50), a meat stew, and Filipino-style fried noodles ($4.50) are available.
Where: B1-41, open: 10am to 10pm daily
What: Quench your thirst with its range of bubble teas and shaved ice desserts. Top-sellers include its hazelnut milk tea with mini pearls ($2.90) and mango shaved ice ($5.80).
Where: B1-45, tel: 6338-8071,
open: 11am to 10.30pm daily
What: Popular items at this 150-seat shop include its chicken teriyaki set ($9.90) and herbal chicken soup set (above, $11.90). All set meals include a free flow of coffee and soft drinks, as well as ice cream.
Where: B1-38/39, tel: 6303-2304, open: 9am to 10pm daily
What: Tuck into a toasty pie at this 12-seat outlet. Popular flavours include mushroom chicken (above), chicken ham and cheese, and curry chicken (from $1 each).
Where: B1-40, tel: 9007-0014, open: noon to 9pm, closed on Sundays
What: Satisfy that sugar craving with a soft and chewy brownie. Highlights include its triple chocolate brownie ($3) and walnut brownie ($3).
BOON LAY XCHANGE
Boon Lay MRT
YA KUN KAYA TOAST
Where: 01-07/08, tel: 6794-8757, open: 7am to 11pm daily. Last order at 10.30pm
What: Get breakfast food any time of the day at this famous kaya toast chain. Choose from popular choices such as the kaya toast set ($4.20) that comes with two slices of toast, two soft-boiled eggs and either a coffee or tea. For those with a sweet-tooth, go for its ice-cream toast ($1.70 per slice). Drinks start at $1.20.
Where: 01-09/10, open: 5.30am to 11.30pm daily
What: For snacks, check out its $1 promotions for items such as sesame shrimp roll. Soya bean, grass jelly and bandung drinks go for 80 cents each. For a heavier meal, choose from roasted or Hainanese chicken rice ($1.40) or char kway teow or bee hoon (80 cents). Pick three dishes to go with rice for $2.50. Also, try the shredded chicken laksa at $2.50.
Where: 01-13, open: 7am to 10.30pm daily
What: Check out the unbeatably low prices at this joint. Top picks include roasted or Hainanese chicken rice ($1.50) and nasi lemak set meals (from $2). For a fusion meal, try its chicken cutlet with rice ($1.80).
Raffles Place MRT
Polar Puffs And Cakes
Where: B1-54, tel: 6532-3553,
open: 7am to 9pm Mondays to Fridays, 7am to 6pm Saturdays, closed on Sundays
What: For a bite on the go, stop by for a chicken pie ($1.80) and a curry puff ($1.50). For the sweet-toothed, there is apple strudel ($2).
Where: B1-06, open: 6.30am to 9.30pm Mondays to Fridays, 7am to 9pm Saturdays, 9.30am to 6.30pm Sundays, closed on public holidays
What: If you are looking for a quick fill-me-up, get the soya bean milk ($1.30), freshly made pancakes (from $1.10) or smooth beancurd (above, $1.20).
TANJONG PAGAR XCHANGE
Tanjong Pagar MRT
Where: B1-04, open: 7.30am to 8pm Mondays to Fridays, closed on weekends
What: This stall features a range of mini chiffon cakes with flavours such as cranberry soy, triple chocolate and strawberry yogurt ($1.30 to $1.60 each). Best part is, these sweet treats have no preservatives or artificial flavouring and are low in sugar.
Where: B1-30, tel: 6222-3486, open: 11am to 9pm Mondays to Saturdays, closed on Sundays
What: The Taiwanese owner and chef has more than 20 years of experience under his belt. Hot favourites include the spicy seafood sa ca fried rice ($6.80) and the Taiwan kong rou rice ($5).
THE SOUP SPOON
Where: B1-31, tel: 6222-0272, open: 10.30am to 9pm Mondays to Fridays, 10.30am to 3pm Saturdays, closed on Sundays
What: Choose from a variety of soups such as Boston clam chowder and beef goulash, with prices starting at $5.60 for the small serving.
CHOA CHU KANG XCHANGE
Choa Chu Kang MRT
Where: 01-24/25, tel: 9006-9008, open: 7.30am to 9.30pm daily
What: This cafe is one of the few sit-down places to have a meal at the MRT station. Try the kaya and butter toast ($1.30 a piece) or the mee rebus, mee siam and laksa ($3.50 each).
Where: 01-23, tel: 6877-0969, open: 10am to 10pm daily
What: The flavours change weekly at this frozen yogurt shop. Prices start from $2.30 for a small cup. Customers may add toppings such as peanuts, rasins, granola and strawberries (65 cents to $1.50 for each topping).
Where: 01-18/19, tel: 6465-5838, open: 6am to 11.30pm daily
What: This outlet is a favourite breakfast stop for busy professionals. The popular items are the hot dog roll ($1.40) and the floss bun ($1.40).
Where: 01-16, tel: 6766-0466, open: 9am to 9.30pm daily
What: The sliced tender bak kwa ($43 for 1kg), chilli bak kwa ($46 for 1kg) and the gold coin bak kwa ($45 for 1 kg) are popular. But shoppers will get an extra 40 per cent off the three products today as the store is having a weekend promotion.