Bringing mums back to the workforce

Social enterprise Food Playground empowers stay-at-home mums


LAKSA, char kway teow, carrot cake - and the list seems to go on like an honour roll of distinctively Singaporean hawker centre favourites.

But here's the catch: these are just some local dishes whipped up by mostly foreigners at a cooking school in the heart of Chinatown, under the tutelage of eagle-eyed stay-at-home mums.

Food Playground was set up in July 2012 by Daniel Tan, who quit his corporate job and wanted to give back to society after surviving a shipwreck in South America. "I was on a shipwreck on a cruise to the Galapagos Islands and we had to jump ship. It was a real wake-up call. After working for 10 years - five years in the airlines and five years in the hotel industry - I wanted to do something meaningful. So I decided to start a social enterprise."

He added that while travelling, he noticed that cooking classes run by the locals were popular, and the teachers - besides teaching people how to cook local dishes - would share their experiences and nuggets of information about the country. However, not many similar classes were conducted in Singapore then.

So, he had the idea to set up a cooking school with foreigners being the target audience, as it was a market that was still largely untapped.

"This is a business opportunity, to provide the service to tourists and expats who want to learn about Singapore food. Singapore Tourism Board recommends places for them to dine at but there is no information on where to learn how to cook such dishes."

The first thing was to select the staff members who would be able to run the classes. "And who better fits the profile than stay-at-home mums (SAHMs)? Classes overseas were mostly taught by SAHMs, not celebrity chefs. From day one, I wanted to hire this group of people and active seniors. As a self-taught home cook, passion is more important than commercial experience as a chef," said Mr Tan.

Statistics by Manpower Research and Statistics Department in 2018 showed that "women (63 per cent) made up a larger proportion of residents outside the labour force in 2018. Family responsibilities (41 per cent) was the top reason which kept females outside the labour force".

"Hence, I wanted to help women who wanted to return to the workfoce and tap into something they are comfortable with - which is cooking, what they do every day."

He added that it is also important to tell the full story of Singapore, that the island is more than the glitzy MBS, as Singaporeans "had it tough" just a few decades ago. But of course, convincing these women to re-enter the workforce had its challenges. SAHM Teresa Ong said: "Staying at home for the past 16-17 years, I was worried that I would not be able to communicate with people."

Fellow SAHM Helen Teo concurred and said: "The biggest obstacle is confidence. We have been out of touch with the corporate world."

But Mr Tan managed to persuade this group of eight SAHMs to help him at Food Playground.

Mary Ng said the typical image of a SAHM is someone who has lost touch with society, someone bereft of economic value. "But people forget that a lot of us are well educated and we choose not to work to take care of kids and ageing parents by choice."

Mr Tan concurred and said that the SAHMs are actually the ambassadors of Singapore as they share Singapore's heritage and food with the tourists, and the foreigners get first-hand instruction on recipes that have been passed down for generations.

When asked about the challenges that such a business model presents, Mr Tan said it is the time taken to train the newcomers. "As part of our selection process, interviewees have to go through a two-hour cooking audition like what you see in Masterchef."

Of course, flexi-work arrangements are also required when working with SAHMs. Mr Tan said: "They need the flexibility. We don't operate on weekends which is actually the most lucrative period." Patience was also needed to build the confidence of these SAHMs, who had to conduct lessons for CEOs and management during corporate events.

Cooking schools now are a dime a dozen. So, when asked about what the X factor is for Food Playground, Mr Tan responded: "We go the extra mile. Being amateur cooks, we want to deliver more value than those run professionally. We are able to engage better with the students through our personal experience."

Meghan Austin from the UK, said: "Helen was able to give us an experience that was so authentic to Singapore."

Mr Tan added that their corporate events are successful because mums are actually the best team-builders. "If you think about it, mums are the ones who bring everyone to the dinner table. They are good team workers. Our SAHMs now regularly host global brands such as Google and Microsoft for their corporate team-building workshops."

Mdm Ng said: "We were teaching a group of doctors today from London. They left impressed with the stories that we told, and left with a bit more knowledge of our culture. Also, being mums who are used to getting the best for our children, all the ingredients we sourced are natural. So, there is more preparation work and the food is made from scratch."

Although Food Playground is a social enterprise, Mr Tan said: For a social enterprise to be sustainable, we need to be competitive and create value that customers are willing to pay for, rather than rely on sympathy votes."

Mr Tan added that next, he wants to bring work to the SAHMs (that is, remote work) rather than getting them to commute to work.

Since 2018, Mr Tan has started to work with industry partners to create remote work assignments such as recipe development and digital content creation and he is looking to hire more SAHMs this year to take on these projects.

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