Hard slog must be worth it, say young hawkers

Hawker Kelly Wong preparing char siew at 6.20am at her stall in Timbre+. About four years ago, the 27-year-old quit a nine-to-five job in banking to sell noodles, and now works from 5.30am to 6.30pm. Tight profit margins for the hours they put in are
Hawker Kelly Wong preparing char siew at 6.20am at her stall in Timbre+. About four years ago, the 27-year-old quit a nine-to-five job in banking to sell noodles, and now works from 5.30am to 6.30pm. Tight profit margins for the hours they put in are always a challenge, young hawkers like Ms Wong tell The Sunday Times. Making ends meet is just as important as passion. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

Over and above the toil, hawkers have to sacrifice a lot of personal time too, they say

Young hawkers have welcomed the proposals made recently to the Government to breathe new life into a traditional trade that has not always been welcoming.

They like the idea of transforming hawker centres into social spaces and training grounds, as well as providing amenities such as Wi-Fi to customers.

But what is needed to attract and keep young hawkers in the business boils down to economics, new-generation hawkers told The Sunday Times.

The way things are right now, earning a living worth the sweat of their toil is still a challenge for most of them.

Earlier this month, a 14-member Hawker Centre 3.0 Committee submitted to the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources (MEWR) its recommendations to sustain Singapore's hawker culture on the back of concerns that it could die out.

  • Hawker Centre 3.0 panel recommendations

  • •Introduce sustainable training programmes to help facilitate and encourage the entry of aspiring hawkers into the profession.

    •Launch a one-stop information centre for hawker trade-related inquiries.

    •Explore the viability of centralised dishwashing, cashless payment and bulk purchases of common ingredients.

    •Encourage wider adoption of more efficient and productive equipment that will help to automate tasks.

    •Enhance hawker centres' vibrancy by having activities such as music performances. Community groups, such as grassroots organisations, schools or tertiary institutions, could also partner hawker centres to hold regular activities.

    •Improve amenities within hawker centres by providing free Wi-Fi access and child-friendly spaces.

    •National Environment Agency to conduct more campaigns to encourage tray returns and other gracious customer behaviour.

    •Improve current tray-return facilities in terms of design, layout and location so they are more convenient to use.

Issues like the relatively high median age of incumbent hawkers - 59 years - were also flagged.

Measures identified as most relevant are those that would boost their profit margin, said young hawkers.

The opportunity cost involved is a substantial barrier to entry for most aspiring hawkers.

Many of those who keep at it do it out of passion for a street food culture they believe in sustaining.

"Being a hawker actually requires a lot of effort and time," said Mr Chris Eng, 22, head chef at Star Yong Kwang BBQ Seafood in Alexandra Village Food Centre.

It requires sacrifices too.

"Your friends or family members might be outside celebrating their public holidays but you will have to spend time at your hawker business because these days are the peak periods."

And with high overhead costs combined with pressure to keep prices low, the income is seldom enough to make up for the work they have to put in.

As Mr Kai Koh, 31, who two years ago set up Roast Paradise selling char siew and roast pork at Old Airport Road Food Centre, put it: "If one can get a job earning $2,000 to $3,000 in a comfortable air-conditioned environment, why would they want to slog in a hawker centre for a similar salary?"

 

COSTS

Setting up a hawker stall is a viable way of road-testing a culinary concept as it involves less risk than investing in a restaurant, said Mr Joshua Khoo, 32, whose French restaurant chain Saveur started as a stall in a Joo Chiat coffee shop.

Unlike first-generation hawkers - who were resettled from the streets to food centres in the 1970s - new entrants are not eligible for government rental subsidies. As of last December, "new" stallholders pay an average of $1,260 a month, against an average of $240 a month for those who are subsidised.

A 2014 analysis conducted by the Ministry of Trade and Industry and the MEWR found that raw materials make up more than half of hawkers' operating costs, compared to rentals, which account for about 12 per cent of costs.

With that in mind, the committee's recommendation of bulk- purchasing ingredients or providing hawkers with crucial information like suppliers' contacts could help with lowering costs.

Mr Khoo, for example, has been getting his frozen meat supplies from the same contact in his restaurant business. "Knowing who to go to can save me up to $500 a month, which is quite a big sum for hawkers," he said.

 

TRAINING AND MANAGEMENT

Hawker training programmes are set to be expanded if the recommendations are implemented.

But it is even more crucial that aspiring hawkers get on-the-job training on how to streamline their service, on top of acquiring culinary skills.

Not many of those who had joined hawker training programmes eventually joined the trade for the long term due to inexperience.

As of last year, out of the 46 who trained under the Hawker Master Trainer Pilot Programme in 2013, only five have stayed on in the business.

Social enterprise Dignity Kitchen, which conducted the training, said that the programme has been tweaked to provide more practical training. It may also set up incubation stalls for young hawkers to hone their processes.

Hipster hawker centre Timbre+, which opened last April, could set a benchmark for what hawker centres of the future could look like.

On top of featuring live music performances and an automated tray-return system, its management also helps hawkers market their dishes and respond to customer inquiries online.

Mr Edward Chia, Timbre Group's managing director, said: "We try our best to offer economies of scale so that hawkers can just focus on ensuring food quality and consistency."

SEE INSIGHT

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 19, 2017, with the headline 'Hard slog must be worth it, say young hawkers'. Print Edition | Subscribe