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Reinventing the wok

A new breed of young Singaporeans, armed with fresh ideas, has emerged on the local hawker scene. Will they be able to hang on to their aprons?

From left: Coffee Break's Anna, Jack and Faye Sai brew coffee and serve up toasts with modern flavours at their Amoy Street Food Centre stall.

First-time hawker Tan Wee Yang started Ah Tan Wings in 2017, out of a hawker stall in Yishun. In May, he opened his second stall at Maxwell Food Centre.

Gladwin Yap (left) and Raphael Sim had a seemingly promising start with Plum & Rice, even winning a young hawker award from a food competition organised by Shin Min Daily News and City Gas in 2017, but the business failed to take off. They have reinvented their concept in hopes of making a comeback.

Tan Wee Yang opened his first hawker stall at Yishun Park Hawker Centre, selling prawn paste chicken wings, and has tapped social and online media to raise the profile of his business.

From left: Siblings Faye, Jack and Anna Sai at Coffee Break's stall at Amoy Street Food Centre. They took over the business from their father in 2011 and have since introduced innovations to the menu and operations.

IN recent years, more Singaporeans are answering the call for the younger generation to become hawkers. But those who have traded indoor air-conditioning for aromatic wok hei have found that the cooking business is no walk in the park. Undaunted, some are innovating, in ways big or small, to make it a sustainable business. Most of the young hawkers, in their 20s and 30s, tell The Business Times their biggest headache is manpower shortage and high staff turnover.

Currently, hawkers are allowed to hire only Singaporeans or permanent residents as stall assistants. But people tend to shun the long hours of standing over the stove, usually in sweltering conditions. Some hawkers have taken to offering better pay or hours to woo helpers. A full-time stall assistant can be paid about S$2,000 to S$2,500 a month.

Edward Too, who co-founded Tasty Street with two friends, says there is also a need to consider workers' "emotional wellness", like giving them rotating work schedules or some form of welfare.

Mr Too and his friends couldn't find enough help to cope with brisk business - which led eventually to their selling Tasty Street off to one of their regular customers.

Other barriers making it increasingly challenging for young entrants include rising rents and food costs.

Even established hawker names like Koh Brother Pig's Organ Soup are feeling the pressure. Despite having seen queues since it opened in Tiong Bahru Food Centre in 1955, Thomas Koh, the founder's grandson who quit graphic designing to run the stall, says they are seeing lower profits every year.

He may be forced to raise prices soon - they have not done so for the last decade, he says - to make ends meet. "We are paying everything out now, meaning, the business is not earning and all the money is going to overheads," he laments.

Finally, young hawkers also face the uphill task of changing Singaporeans' set notions of hawker food and culture. For example, Faye Sai, co-owner of Coffee Break, argues that Singaporeans have the mentality that "young hawkers sure cannot make it" and are reluctant to pay more for good food. "After a while, in trying to balance quality and costs, you have to sacrifice one for the other," she explains.

To provide support to aspiring hawkers, the National Environment Agency (NEA) introduced a hawker incubation programme in February last year to help ease difficulties they may have going into the trade. Under the programme, pre-fitted stalls are offered for rent for six months at 50 per cent off the market rate - and NEA has extended the tenure to nine months starting from March. The agency said it has received 60 applications for its 18 incubation stalls since the launch of the programme.

The applicants are also much younger, with an average age of 37 and the youngest at 28. Hawkers at NEA-run hawker centres have a median age of 60 years.

Even so, some plucky young hawkers are taking fate into their own hands by injecting fresh ideas into the business, either from experience, from observations or plain creativity. Prawn mee broth French-inspired, anyone? The owners of three popular hawker stalls in Singapore share their stories.

A fresh start, with a revamped food concept

CUSTOMERS who had been used to eating its Japanese-inspired rice sets were surprised to find Plum & Rice closing down, only to reopen a month later in May selling traditional prawn noodles under a new name, Prawn & Mee.

"We gave ourselves two years. The business had to be sustainable in the sense that it would be comparable to having a job in the culinary industry," says Gladwin Yap, 28, who started Plum & Rice with his classmate from the Culinary Institute of America, Raphael Sim.

"The two years came, we decided that things weren't improving in the sense that we couldn't sustain our lifestyles, much less think about making profits," says Mr Yap. "We decided to change course instead of leaving (the hawker industry), partly because of the bonds we've built with many of our regular customers and our neighbours, and because we like the day-to-day operations of a hawker stall."

The onus, he explains, "is on ourselves", and the outcome will hinge on "how much hard work we put in".

Strained finances

The duo began business in a hawker centre at Bedok North in December 2016, out of an interest to keep the hawker spirit alive, and focused on selling umeboshi, a type of preserved plum commonly eaten in Japan, with dishes like sous vide cod fish and braised pork belly.

The response was encouraging at first when customers were keen to try out the new stall.

But people eventually went back to food they were familiar with at the hawker centre, the owners recount ruefully.

Finances were strained. The hawkers did not pay themselves for the first six months and subsequently drew a monthly salary of just S$415 each, before taxes and contributions.

In comparison, a chef in the culinary industry can earn about S$2,500 a month, depending on the level of experience.

Prawn & Mee, based off Mr Yap's family recipe, is seeing better results, although they declined to reveal sales figures. Again, they have given themselves two years to succeed and have stuck to drawing the previous pay in hopes of recouping losses more quickly.

With the new concept, the owners have applied some ideas from their culinary background. Different cooking techniques from other cuisines are employed. "For example to add sweetness to the dish, instead of just throwing in a lot of sugar, we borrowed the French technique mirepoix," explains Mr Sim, who is also 28. It's a combination of three vegetables with high sugar content - onions, carrots and celery - that sweeten the soup naturally. "It's a little pricier, but for the dimension that it adds... it's quality that matters."

Having worked in Singapore restaurants, which tend to have smaller kitchens than those in other countries, they also optimised the workflow for the stall, such that each person can do his job without having to walk around.

However, they point out that innovations should come with education for most hawkers to find them useful.

"You have to give examples specific to them," Mr Sim says, referring to equipment that could help raise productivity, like vacuum sealing machines and thermal mixers. Mr Yap adds: "They're great, but they will only know how good those products are if they (the hawkers) themselves are from a restaurant."

Media-savvy young hawker

PUBLICITY may not be one of the first things on a hawker's mind, but Tan Wee Yang wasted no time tapping social and online media to boost his business right from the start.

The 27-year-old's stall, Ah Tan Wings, specialises in har cheong gai (prawn paste chicken) that has been covered by food bloggers and online media outlets like Mothership.SG over the years. Alongside photos of the golden wings, popular food review website Miss Tam Chiak in 2018 wrote: "The wings were fragrant and juicy, but what stood out was how the chicken flesh also had the salty-sourness of the prawn paste."

On social media, Ah Tan Wings runs an Instagram account with artfully shot fried chicken, for example. The social media accounts are also used to share updates on the stalls.

In an interview with Vulcan Post last year, Mr Tan, who poured his life savings into the business, said Ah Tan Wings sells 600 to 900 wings a day.

He declines to reveal current sales, but business has clearly been good enough for him to open a second stall at Maxwell Food Centre - where rent has been known to go as high as over S$4,000 a month - in May.

"The media sort of saved me. Before the media write-ups, I was doing okay but it wasn't sustainable," says Mr Tan, adding that he pitched ideas to media outlets himself.

Ah Tan Wings first opened at the then newly-built Yishun Park Hawker Centre in September 2017, a few months after starting out at pop-up events where the brand grew its following.

Improving margins

"The margins were quite bad in the first few months because labour costs were much more than expected," explains Mr Tan, who studied business in a polytechnic and quit working as a machinery salesperson to pursue his love for har cheong gai. "I was working 16 to 18 hours every day and earning about S$1,000 for the whole month even though I had business."

It took a year for the business to stabilise. Since then, margins have improved after Mr Tan learnt how to reduce costs and wastage.

He also looks out for innovations to help quicken processes, like a pressing machine for producing chicken cutlets.

The older generation of hawkers had an advantage in terms of experience, heritage and subsidised rents, he believes.

But when it comes to younger hawkers like himself, "we still have our advantage like a new set of skills and the ability to innovate", notes Mr Tan.

"We're more savvy on the Internet and we can learn more through it," he adds.

That said, some aspects of the hawker trade may simply work better the traditional way.

"I had my own method of cooking rice - at the start you'd think everything should be measured," Mr Tan shares. "Then I realised that it's not sustainable at the rate we're cooking."

A middle-aged assistant who Mr Tan hired to help out at the Yishun stall later taught him his old - perhaps, unorthodox - methods of cooking rice. Mr Tan was sceptical at first but realised it was more efficient: "Hawking is all about volume. You have to be able to cook fast."

Not your regular drinks stall

WHEN they took over the drinks stall from their father in 2011, the first two years were rocky, with his regular customers doubting their kopi- and teh-brewing skills.

Undeterred, the Sai siblings running Coffee Break at Amoy Street Food Centre gradually won their own set of regulars and now sell 500 to 600 cups a day, about double the volume from the early years.

"When we decided that we wanted to take over, we had to learn by watching my dad first... It was only on the actual brewing that he would train and correct us, or do taste tests every time we made drinks," says 32-year-old Faye Sai, who manages the business with her twin sister, Anna, and 35-year-old brother, Jack.

They have another sister who did not join the business.

But it may have been their newfangled drinks that put the Sais' Coffee Break on the radars of consumers and food reviewers.

A few years ago, the university graduates expanded the drinks menu beyond the almond- and peppermint-flavoured coffee their father started brewing close to two decades ago, introducing flavours inspired by their travels. A pumpkin spice flavour was created from a coffee they tasted in France and their sea salt mint coffee was inspired by doogh, a yogurt mint drink that Jack enjoyed during a holiday in Iran.

Business was so brisk the trio opened a drinks kiosk at Science Park in 2016.

Own designs

In another departure from the traditional trade, the siblings made efforts to brand Coffee Break, taking a page from Faye's marketing degree. Many of Coffee Break's marketing collaterals are also designed by Anna, who graduated in fine arts.

"Our cups and paper bags are customised with our logo and that logo has worked pretty well," says Faye. "When we opened our second shop, people wouldn't see the signboard but they would see the big sign and say: 'This looks very familiar'."

Operationally, the siblings also took to digitising orders with an iPad in a bid to cut down on manpower (which accounted for 50 to 60 per cent of their costs) and save time.

With good old pen and paper, they could take only five orders at once and had to run in and out of the stall. It was Faye's idea to eliminate that process after she saw McDonald's and Starbucks' efficient order-taking systems.

But not all ideas have paid off. Hoping to create a cafe-style outlet, they opened at GSH Plaza in Raffles Place in 2017 with food options and wooden furniture.

However, it was an obscure location with low footfall. Customers did not recognise them for their food either. The shop was closed after five months and the Sais suffered a six-figure loss.

The expensive lesson showed them the hawker environment still works best, says Faye. They may close the kiosk at Science Park, where rent is high, and open another hawker stall in the central business district.

The setback has not stopped the siblings from concocting more ideas, however. This year, they are venturing into online retail to widen Coffee Break's reach and hope to launch an online shop in the third quarter. They have also started retailing capsules of Coffee Break's kopi for coffee machines on Lazada.

Says Faye: "I've seen a lot of young hawkers come in and make it, but it's not without hard work. If they could make it then, what more now when the hawker scene is so vibrant?"