'Kopi kia' to stay but, but you may have to pay for service

'Kopi kia' to stay but, but you may have to pay for service
Madam Tan Guan Lee carrying a drink to serve to a customer at the Toa Payoh North coffee shop where she works.

SINGAPORE - Coffee-shop operators may be facing a labour crunch, but the traditional kopi kia are here to stay for now.

All of the 10 coffee-shop operators who spoke to The Straits Times said that they cannot do without the workers, whose name is Hokkien for coffee boy.

This is despite a proposal made six months ago by two prominent coffee associations to do away with them.

The kopi kia shuttle between drink stalls and customers' tables to take orders and serve drinks. For this reason, they are also known as "runners". In the competitive coffee shop business, runners are seen as providing an "additional service" for customers.

"It's true that we can save a lot on the labour side if we implement self-service," said Mr Kelvin Ling, who operates two coffee shops in Hougang and Toa Payoh.

He estimated that he can save between $6,000 and $8,000 a month at each coffee shop if he does away with drink stall runners. "But we also realised that if you don't have a waiter or a waitress to ask you about it, some won't buy a drink. We still think customers prefer to be served," the 34-year-old added.

Drink stall runners typically work eight to 12 hours a day, and are paid between $900 and $1,200 a month.

Other coffee shop operators said that they could lose business to competitors unless the move to self-service is implemented across the board.

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