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What labour crunch? This cafe thrives on a student-run crew

SINGAPORE — As some eateries struggle to stay afloat amid a labour crunch and soaring costs, one cafe appears to be bucking the trend.

Superfudo's part-time service crew (from left) Han Shao Zhuo, 21 and Liz Wee, 18. They are part of an entirely student-run crew, down to its managers.

Superfudo's part-time service crew (from left) Han Shao Zhuo, 21 and Liz Wee, 18. They are part of an entirely student-run crew, down to its managers.

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SINGAPORE — As some eateries struggle to stay afloat amid a labour crunch and soaring costs, one cafe appears to be bucking the trend.  

Superfudo, which sells protein bowls, hires an entirely student-run crew, down to its managers.

This has helped it to keep its monthly labour costs below S$15,000 — including Central Provident Fund contributions — in its two outlets, co-founder Joseph Xu, 37, told TODAY last week.

Most cafes of similar size pay more just for a single outlet with shorter opening times and a rest day,” he said.

Superfudo, which opens 13 hours daily throughout the week, started operations in late 2017 with a 1,400 sqf store in Holland Village and opened another 900 sqf outlet at the International Building along Orchard Road in February this year.

The first store broke even in four-and-a-half months and its Orchard outlet is set to turn a profit by next month.

The success which Superfudo has had with its workforce flies in the face of the labour woes faced by others in the food-and-beverage (F&B) business.

Earlier this month, TODAY reported that difficulties in hiring and training employees were among the reasons that led to the abrupt closure of popular American restaurant chain Chili’s Grill & Bar in Singapore. 


Mr Xu said that the cafe set out to hire only students.

It advertises its part-time positions on listing site Gumtree, drawing at least 50 or 60 applicants every month. On average, it takes on one or two new staff members weekly.

Since late 2017, it has received about 2,100 applications, Mr Xu said.  

Right now, the 80 crew members on its roster are aged between 15 and 23, and come from a range of institutions such as junior colleges, polytechnics and universities.  

Their roles include cooking rice, receiving stock, taking customers’ orders, and cleaning the store.  

It pays its employees by the hour: S$7 on weekdays, S$8 on Saturdays, S$9 on Sundays, and S$14 on public holidays.

The eatery has a flexible rostering system, where staff members indicate their available time slots. A manager then puts together a roster, giving priority to those with more experience.

Crew members may work between three and six hours daily, and the eatery does not mandate that they clock a minimum number of hours weekly.

“They choose their own hours. They can work 10 hours this week and 30 hours next week, which is really up to them,” Mr Xu said.  

The absence of full-time employees gives the eatery a lot of flexibility, he noted.

“When business dipped, we dropped manpower and saved wages. When it’s improving… we add when needed,” he said.

“With full-timers, it’s not possible. Your wages stay or you would need to lay off or ask them to go on leave, which is usually paid.”

Mr Xu urged other F&B owners to follow Superfudo’s model, which he said could alleviate their manpower woes, as relying on foreign workers is expensive.

The Government is set to tighten the foreign-worker quota for the services sector in the next two years. F&B companies are part of the sector.

The sector’s Dependency Ratio Ceiling — or the proportion of foreign workers that firms may hire — will be cut from 40 per cent to 38 per cent on Jan 1 next year, and to 35 per cent on Jan 1, 2021.

Mr Xu acknowledged, though, that some eatery owners may find his model untenable, because students come and go, and may not be able to commit to a regular schedule.

Some eateries also prefer to employ chefs in their outlets.

Fine-dining restaurants or those focused on service may find it unfeasible. “The service levels are just not going to be there,” Mr Xu said.

Still, there are plenty of casual-dining outlets that could adopt the practice.

Apart from its distinctive hiring model, Superfudo also keeps its costs down by having its food — such as meats — prepared in central kitchens, which are mostly in Woodlands.


Superfudo’s service crew told TODAY that they enjoyed the flexibility that the cafe offers.

Mr Samson Sim, 20, who clocks at least 17 hours each week at the eatery, said that other F&B establishments require staff members to clock a minimum number of hours weekly.

“It’s really flexible here. If you’re free for three to four hours, you can just come,” said Mr Sim, who will graduate with an accountancy diploma from Ngee Ann Polytechnic next month.

Agreeing, fellow part-time crew member, Ms Gayle Ho, 19, who is waiting to enrol in university, said: “We can come to work whenever our schedules fit.”

Nevertheless, some in the F&B business said that the model may not work for everyone.

Mr Vijay Kumar Pillai, executive director of Caerus Holding — which manages confectionery Lady M — said there is no one-size-fits-all approach to the manpower issue.

“We want a core team who grows with the brand and wants to sell our products. With part-time staff, it’s hard to keep a consistent experience,” he added.

Six in 10 of Lady M’s workforce are full-time employees.

“We will lose this experience. The coffee won’t be as good, (for instance). Each business needs to do what works for them,” he said. 

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