One look at the hungry crowds at the Nan Hwa Chong coffee shop in North Bridge Road shows why the tedious task of dishwashing is high on the boss's agenda.
The eatery is packed on weekends, with hundreds getting their fix of the famous Nan Hwa Chong fish head steamboat.
Saturday and Sunday nights are especially busy for the restaurant, with customers often complaining about the long wait and lack of chairs and tables.
Business is good, said managing director Michael Lee.
"We are packed on weekends and all the seats are usually taken up," he said.
But the roaring business also created a problem for Mr Lee, 28, who has taken over the restaurant from his father.
"Dishes are a huge problem. We can easily generate 900 dirty dishes every weekday night. It doubles to 1,800 on weekends," he said.
For years the restaurant had hired a few employees who would do nothing but work their way through the pile, scrubbing, washing and rinsing dishes so that they can be quickly used again.
But last month, it decided to outsource the job after a friend told Mr Lee about centralised dishwashing services. After discussing terms and weighing up the costs and benefits, Mr Lee decided to plunge in and send dirty dishes to the automated dishwashing lines of a vendor instead.
"It's a real problem hiring dishwashers. Locals don't want to work as a dishwasher, which can be a tough job. And the tightening manpower quotas mean that we can't just hire a foreigner any more," he said.
Mr Lee estimated that hiring three foreign dishwashers would easily set him back by $6,000 to $7,000 a month after accounting for wages, levies and lodgings.
"And then when we do manage to hire, they last maybe two months before leaving, creating another gap. So we have to advertise all over again," he said.
The restaurant pays the dishwashing vendor about $3,600 a month, with part of it subsidised by Spring Singapore. There was also the additional cost of buying extra dishes and utensils to cover for the turnaround time.
"We have had to buy a lot more dishes to make sure that we always have enough to serve the customers. But with the cost savings, I'm sure we can recoup this in no time," said Mr Lee.
The arrangement has allowed Nan Hwa Chong to free up space in its kitchen and become more organised. It also helps that it does not need to worry as much about the cleanliness of the plates, said Mr Lee.
"Now that a big part of our headache is solved and manpower is freed up, we can spend more time on doing the core business of cooking and serving the food much better," he added.
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