by Marsita Omar
Fast food is an American term referring to “foods [that] are kept hot and ready to serve, or [are] partially prepared so that they can be served quickly.”1 19th century pushcart vendors developed into urban diners, which then developed into the modern fast-food restaurant, with brands like White Castle in the 1920s and McDonald’s in 1939.2
Singapore saw the rise of fast food in the 1970s. In 1968, the first fast-food chain, the A&W Family Restaurant, opened here. The first A&W outlet, which was located in MSA Building, paved the way for the establishment of other fast-food restaurants. Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) followed suit with the opening of its outlet in Somerset in 1976,3 and McDonald’s with its Liat Towers outlet on Orchard Road in 1979. Many new fast-food outlets like Hardee’s and Baskin-Robbins sprouted in the 1980s and 1990s.4 Now, a wide range of international cuisine is easily available. Ever since Pizza Hut came to Singapore in 1986, the concept of pizza delivery service has become popular.5
Development of the local fast-food industry
A&W, which stands for “Allen and Wright”, is America’s oldest franchise restaurant chain. In 1962, American couple Al and Geri Lieboff toured Southeast Asia and saw the opportunity of setting up business here. They bought an A&W franchise and opened an outlet, first in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and then in Singapore in 1968.6 A&W introduced hamburgers, hotdogs and its brand of root beer, which was well received by Singaporeans. In 1970, they opened the drive-in A&W Family Restaurant on Bukit Timah Road.7
Although KFC opened in 1976, it did not make as big an entrance as McDonald’s when the latter opened its first outlet on 20 October 1979 at Liat Towers. The number of people who thronged the opening was so large that a world record was set for serving the highest volume of hamburgers in a single day. This record was held until the 1990s when it was broken by the McDonald’s opening in Beijing, China. McDonald’s made inroads into the heartlands when it opened its first outlet in Hougang in May 1984. Today, one can find a McDonald’s restaurant in almost every part of the island. There are more than 100 McDonald’s outlets operating in Singapore with over 40 operating 24 hours, while KFC has more than 70 outlets.8
Another prominent player in the fast-food business is Burger King, which opened its first outlet in Singapore in 1982. By then, A&W was facing stiff competition and eventually closed down in Singapore in 2003. There were also other fast-food chains that wanted a piece of the pie. Some survived, but many did not.9 Examples of the better-known ones that have since closed down include Shakey’s Pizza,10 Milano’s Pizza,11 Hardee’s, and Wendy’s.12 In 2019, however, A&W returned to Singapore with the opening of its outlet at Jewel Changi Airport.13
The 1990s saw a surge of eateries, including fast-food restaurants, applying for halal certification with the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) as they sought to grow their market share.14 In 1992, A&W became the first American fast-food chain to get a halal certificate.15 However, Arnold’s Fried Chicken, a local fast-food restaurant, had already been halal since 1987.16 Other early adopters of halal certification were McDonald’s in 1992 just after A&W received theirs, and KFC in 1994.17
1. Oxford English dictionary. (1989). (2nd ed., Vol. V), p. 751. Oxford: Clarendon Press. (Call no.: R 423 OXF)
2. Hogan, D. G. (2004). Fast Food, pp. 456-457. The Oxford encyclopedia of food and drink in America (Vol. I), pp. 456-458. (Call no.: 641.3003 OXF)
3. At Last!!! A & W opens in Singapore [Advertisement]. (1968, September 17). The Straits Times, p. 4; Secret of Colonel Sanders' chicken. (1976, February 22).The Straits Times, p. 9; Oon, V. KFC - It's really 'finger licking' good ... . (1976, March 19). New Nation, p. 12; Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Four new fast food outlets to open next month. (1983, December 8). Singapore Monitor, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Ong, A. (2006, April 30). Pizza. The Straits Times, p. 32. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. Ho, B. (2005, February 19). A & W was fast-food king. The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Tan, A. (1985, February 11). A & W hungry like a bear for top spot in fast food. The Straits Times, p. 17. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Burgers, French fries and diet coke [Blog post]. (2011, October 21). Retrieved 2016, August 1 from Remember Singapore website: https://remembersingapore.org/2011/10/21/burgers-french-fries-and-diet-coke/
9. Burgers, French fries and diet coke [Blog post]. (2011, October 21). Retrieved 2016, August 1 from Remember Singapore website: https://remembersingapore.org/2011/10/21/burgers-french-fries-and-diet-coke/
10. Balan, A. (1995, March 9). Shakey's leaves fast-food scene -- again. Business Times, p. 19. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Loh, G.S. (2017, October 13). Five on Friday: 5 iconic Singapore dining spots we wish were still around. Channel NewsAsia. Retrieved from Channel NewsAsia website: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/lifestyle/five-on-friday-5-iconic-singapore-dining-spots-we-wish-were-9308622
12. A&W to return to Singapore: 5 other old-school fast food chains that have come and gone. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB's eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
13. Lim, M.Z. (2019, April 11). Hour-long queues at A&W outlet on first day of Jewel Changi Airport's public preview. (2017, July 7). The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB's eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
14. Andrianie, S. (1997, September 5). 10-fold rise in number of halal food outlets. The Straits Times, p. 48; Tan, K-K. (2001, August 6). The halal economics. Today, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Halal fast food. (1992, June 18). The New Paper, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. Low, I. (1992, August 20). Arnold’s further taps appetite for halal fast food. Business Times, p. 17. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. KFC hopes to earn up to 5% more by going halal. (1994, February 1). The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Kong, L., & Sinha, V. (Eds). (2016). Food, foodways and foodscapes: Culture, community and consumption in post-colonial Singapore. Singapore ; New Jersey : World Scientific, pp. 211–217.
(Call no.: RSING 394.12095957 FOO)
Yohanna Abdullah. (2009, December 14). Fast-food outlets give assurance on halal switch. The Straits Times, p. 32. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
The information in this article is valid as at May 2019 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.