A dollar. That was all it took. You entered the neighbourhood 7-Eleven with your friends, headed down the aisle past the cassava chips, all the while ignoring the searing looks a world-weary auntie gave you.
Slot the dollar in the gaudy machine with plastered images of potatoes being happily dropped to their eventual doom, and you press the magic button, the machine whirs to life and within seconds it oozes out yellowish gobs of pus.
And no matter how many times you've gotten yourself a nice steaming cup of mashed potato, you hesitate. "Is this it? It can't be that watery and disgusting right?", but almost as if sensing that discomfort, the machine unloads the gravy, and while that itself is a debatable visual improvement, the smell that comes with it erased whatever doubt you might have had about the deliciousness that had been bestowed upon you.
It might be the nostalgia talking but, in terms of smell and taste, the 7-Eleven mashed potato didn't lose out by much to the KFC version.
The thing though is that if you have only been going to 7-Eleven for the past couple of years, you might not have an inkling of what I'm talking about.
Where did the mashed potatoes go?
Perhaps it takes you a while to catch the signs. A quick dip into an unfamiliar 7-Eleven to grab a drink, a craving for cold sandwiches instead of stifling long queues at your work canteen.
But soon enough, your brain, maybe craving the high that MSG gives it, starts to put two and two together.
"Eh, I haven't seen a mashed potato machine in quite a while ah."
If you search the Internet for news of its demise, it's almost like you're sieving through a poorly thought out cover-up.
There are recent tweets, really viral ones, decrying the demise of the instant mashed potato at 7-Eleven.
Everyone misses it, but no one seems to be able to pinpoint when or why it went missing.
Some aren't even sure if it is missing. A few comments here and there claimed they spotted it not so long ago, even enjoyed the mushy goodness that so many yearn for.
But like the initial splatters of the mashed potato machine, these leads weren't solid.
Deciding to go to the source of it all, I emailed the folks over at 7-Eleven on November 3, 2020.
The very helpful PR team for 7-Eleven quickly got back to me. It wasn't good news.
"You may wish to note that mashed potato machines have been removed from our stores islandwide since more than 5 years ago."
As painful as it was, the "when" had been solved.
More than half a decade ago.
All this time, with nary a formal farewell to send off our artificial flavoured comrade. However, the tears would have to wait, there was still the very pertinent question of "why".
To understand the gravity of this disappearance, it is essential to appreciate the scale of the mashed potato machine-phenomenon.
This wasn't a niche offering that a 7-Eleven corner store at Punggol Point had shabbily put up without much thought, it was literally everywhere in Singapore.
Here's a Today article from 2006 announcing the launch of instant mashed potato machines in 60 schools around Singapore, with plans to expand to all 180 primary schools and other learning institutions.
The machine was also available back then at more than 300 7-Eleven outlets around Singapore.
The popularity and number of machines in Singapore meant it was only a matter of time before tourists took notice.
Can almost smell it.
Interestingly, another video clip uploaded by the same YouTube channel appears to show what does happen when the mashed potato machine actually messes up.
Soon the videos would attract the attention of media outlets in the west, mainly the United States, giving rise to headlines such as "7-Eleven Mashed Potato Machine is Horrifying, Strangely Compelling".
According to one website, it was even apparently trending on Twitter at one point.
All this to say, it was something actually rather unique to Singapore that intrigued a fair portion of the world.
The good PR folks at 7-Eleven had handed our queries over to more technical product people.
For some reason, an out-of-the blue question about the whereabouts of a mashed potato dispenser discontinued around five years ago was not exactly priority number one for them.
But was I thinking too narrowly?
While 7-Eleven was indeed where these machines gained notoriety, and public recognition, the machines themselves must have had an original source.
So where was it made?
Who makes the mash potato maker
By now the 7-Eleven people had gotten back to me, they very kindly informed me that, unfortunately, since the team had changed from all those years ago, it was going to be tough to pinpoint the reason for the discontinuation of the machines.
I myself was in the middle of trying to find said machine.
Queries sent to multiple foodservice machine distributors finally culminated in a scheduled call with a very confused, but still incredibly accommodating, sales rep.
It was a quick call, we exchanged pleasantries, cleared up some miscommunication (he was under the impression that I wanted a potato masher), double-checked if I was serious about this -- "but why a mashed potato dispenser ah?", gave some handy insight as to what the vending machine supplier stream in Singapore is like, double double-checked if I was serious -- "but why though?"-- and then we politely exchanged goodbyes.
While he was unsure where I could procure these mashed machinations, he did tell me that it probably wasn't made in Singapore.
"Anywhere around the world" was his guesstimate, but he did mention China as a slightly more plausible supplier.
The sales rep also gave an off-handed explanation as to the disappearance of the machine, but we'll get back to that in a bit.
Searches on the Internet, and checks on other similar Singapore businesses seemed to confirm his hypothesis. There was no trace of any mashed potato dispenser being made anywhere remotely close to Singapore.
In fact, to even get a whiff of any such machine, you would have to follow the trail of mashed potato globs for over 11 hours (on plane!) to the 33rd largest city in China.
Changzhou, a city with a population of over four million, is a manufacturing hub along the Yangtze River Delta.
It has a high-tech industrial development zone in its northern area.
Located around that area is a company called Changzhou Pilot Electronic.
According to its website, it is the "Global Intelligent Beverage Dispenser Leader".
It also sells this little gem.
Which, come on, looks alike right?
The price isn't stated on the site itself, a different website places the price for individual machines at US$500 (S$674).
While it is unclear if this was the machine that became the chassis of the eventual 7-Eleven icon, Changzhou Pilot and 7-Eleven have at the very least partnered together before.
We'll get back to this particular manufacturer in a bit.
The pertinent news is that there was a company that appeared to produce these machines, which might technically suggest an available supply chain if 7-Eleven was indeed keen on reintroducing a version of the mashed potato dispenser.
But more than five years on, no comeback for the gooped wonder appears to be on the horizon.
Which brings up the possibility the sales rep had casually floated up during our conversation:
"Maybe it just lost popularity along the way."
Hot and cold
He had been referring specifically to how large dispensers like the mashed potato dispenser weren't as popular now.
To test that theory out, I took a look at another familiar childhood snack.
Beside the ever-present mashed potato machine in most 7-Elevens was often its more basic sidekick, Craze Hottis.
Both were derived from potatoes but Craze Hottis, perhaps due to the wacky nature of its name or easily scoopable contents, never seemed to demand the same attention the mashed potato did.
It, however, appears to have been discontinued as well.
The difference though is Tong Garden, the manufacturer, acknowledges the nostalgia some might have for their previous product.
Here they are capitalising on a viral SGAG post to announce their comeback in package form.
One could argue that a packaged form of the mashed potato would probably not sell quite as easily as the almost made-to-be packaged Craze Hottis.
A microwaveable version of the mashed potato goop might also not be the brand image that Maggi would perhaps wish to cultivate.
What they appear to be comfortable in associating with though are these offerings.
Instant in a way.
In response to queries from Mothership, a very nice representative from Tong Garden informed us that the Craze Hottis machine was currently not in any 7-Eleven stores at the moment.
According to them, there were multiple considerations such as "hygiene, staff training and cleanliness of the stores" that ultimately led to the discontinuation in 7-Eleven.
You can still rent the machine via this link though.
They also said that 7-Eleven had wanted to go in another direction.
Perhaps a more packaged direction instead?
Another factor might be price.
While not confirmed by the companies themselves, logically a packaged form of a product appears to be a more financially viable alternative than a clunky machine that takes up a larger area of the store, and needs constant maintenance to ensure it's working fine.
In fact a 24kg Instant Mix mashed potato package would set you back a good 40 plus dollars online.
Not to mention the gravy you have to purchase as well.
But clarification, some at least, was soon to arrive.
On November 12, 7-Eleven's Head of Marketing, Crispian Leong, got back to me on the many many questions I had thrown at him.
Leong confirmed my worst fears, that by the time he had started work at 7-Eleven, the mashed potato machine had already come and gone.
So unfortunately not much info was available on that front.
However, Leong did confirm that the reason for the discontinuation of the Hottis machine at 7-Eleven was because they "foresaw some potential food safety issues with the machines".
So while no one definitive reason was given, chances are like most decisions involving profit-making businesses, a mixture of less profits, issues that might take away from those profits (safety issues), and cheaper alternatives might have all been factors.
But possibly deducing the reason why something might have been discontinued isn't really the same as finding out what happened to the machines.
Which brings us back to the company in Changzhou.
Go to the source
Finding some contacts on the company's website, I typed out what must have been a very inexplicable message to an administrative employee in Changzhou.
I also inserted a Chinese translation of my queries, courtesy of a Chinese-speaking colleague.
I pressed "send" on the draft, and smugly folded my arms in victory. "I've done it" I thought to myself, like a man who had found buried treasure in the middle of unmarked dunes.
For the next two months, not a single reply.
On hindsight, it is perhaps insufferably clear that a manufacturing company in Changzhou wouldn't really find the ramblings of a man from Singapore asking for the whereabouts of a mashed potato machine a top priority.
Something I also probably should have mentioned is that as a Hail Mary, I had been messaging and emailing people with some sort of locational presence in Changzhou, and who appeared to be at least conversationally fluent in English.
Most of these messages were met with radio silence.
Unfortunately it seemed I had hit a dead-end. Other follow-up emails to aforementioned Singapore point of contacts were, rightfully, ignored as well.
And then out of nowhere, a miracle on January 9, 2021:
Kun (not his real name) was working in Changzhou, and had kindly offered to help take a look at the company I was trying to contact.
He confirmed to me the next day, that the company was indeed open and functioning.
He even went above and beyond to pass me the WeChat number of an employee there as well.
But the extent of his help was only made known to me on January 11, two months after the initial email which had received no response.
A reply came in.
The email very sweetly, but completely unnecessarily of course, apologised for the delay, and informed me about two machines they had that could make and dispense instant mashed potato.
They clarified that 7-Eleven wasn't their direct client for the mashed potato machine, though they did not rule out the possibility that a client might have sold them that.
Another punch to the gut came when they informed me that the model I had been placing my faith in was no longer in production.
But a small spark of hope appeared.
"Right now we do not provide this model but another one, which is similar but a little bit bigger. Below is the machine information."
Here it is.
I was very courteously passed to a sales rep, who patiently explained to me what the machines entail and shipping terms so basic, she must have rolled her eyes to prevent a seizure.
And finally, after running me through the difference between container price (bulk purchase) and sample price (small quantity purchase), I was finally on the verge of purchasing a mashed potato dispenser.
I was mentally preparing the excuses I would throw out at the Admin team to justify them reimbursing my purchase.
"Serious, this one necessary editorial expense, I promise."
And then, everything fell apart.
I was told in further email correspondence that they would need a lot more orders, bulk orders, to even restart the production line.
And that was it.
It is tempting to think an item of nostalgia is pure, or somehow not afflicted by the same corporate considerations that items of less sentimental value are subjected to.
But it probably is.
A simple attempt at finding out what happened to, and then procuring, a mashed potato machine might as well have necessitated the need to set up a company myself.
So until a commercially viable option presents itself, chances are the 7-Eleven mashed potato days are consigned to history.
For now, maybe buy a potato masher, and watch a YouTube tutorial on how to make mashed potatoes from scratch.
Image from Reddit and YouTube
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