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Helping hawkers survive the Internet age
ENTREPRENEUR Jonathan Faynop started his food delivery app hawker.today with a very simple vision. He was frustrated at the lack of food delivery options in Singapore - usually limited to fast food or pizza - and wanted to fill that gap.
"We asked why can't there be a service that delivers sambal stingray or carrot cake from our hawker centres? After all that's the staple of what Singaporeans eat on a daily basis," says the 26-year-old.
So around mid-last year, he started developing the mobile app hawker.today, and launched it in November. Now, it has over 11,000 downloads and over 6,000 monthly active users, ordering food from 300 stalls across the island.
However, Mr Faynop knew that food delivery was just the tip of the iceberg for his business.
"When I first started, I was naive to think these hawker stalls would be here forever. If they go out of business, I will be affected too. We need to be more than just a food delivery company, we have to help continue our culinary heritage in the other ways as well," he says.
Along the way, Mr Faynop also began collecting stories about the hawkers to build a database of information about our street food history. "We want to bring the entire hawker business online, so that individual local food business owners can benefit from the Internet, make online revenue, and become relevant to the 21st century consumer," he explains. "Picture this: (we'll have) an e-hawker centre made up of many hawker centres, all within your smartphone (and you can have) local food on demand from any hawker centre in Singapore."
In the long term, he intends to take the app overseas and build an "Airbnb for local food around the world". Starting with nearby countries such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines, he hopes travellers will be able to use his app to find authentic local food stalls, and gain easy access to them.
For now, delivery is limited only to certain parts of Singapore, as they only have 50 riders working with them. By the end of the year however, he aims to do island-wide delivery, carrying dishes from at least a few thousand hawker stalls on his app.
It seems like an ambitious goal, but there's a reason: through talking to hawker stall owners, Mr Faynop found that most of them intend to give up their businesses within the next five to 10 years. "We are really racing against the clock," he says.
The next phase of his plans will likely happen in about five years, when some of these hawker stall owners who don't have a next generation to take over their businesses start hanging up their woks. By then, Mr Faynop hopes his business will have enough resources to buy over some of these brands, and run them under hawker.today.
None of it is set in stone yet, he highlights, but one potential idea is to work with schools to match young aspiring cooks to train under a hawker veteran, and integrate them into their e-hawker centre.
He acknowledges that while ordering char kway teow from an app is not the same as eating it at a neighbourhood food centre, hawkers retiring is an inevitable evolution of the local food scene and his app has the opportunity to make a difference.
Explains Mr Faynop: "That's one of the reasons why we see McDonald's as our biggest competitor. They made burgers and fast food into a scalable business model, and I believe we can do the same for local food. Why can't a good Hainanese chicken rice be designed to maintain quality and consistency in the same way?"
He adds: "A lot of the younger F&B business owners are thinking along the same lines now. They want to innovate their operations to expand while maintaining consistency, but they do not have the technological expertise. This is where we come in."
Ultimately, he cites his future children as the main motivation for coming up with hawker.today. "I am sure that without the help of technology in preserving our culinary heritage, my future child will not have the chance to taste the hawker food of today. So I have to at least do my part to preserve it, because otherwise, it's going to be gone someday."