Boost for aspiring hawkers

Tiger Beer's inaugural Tiger Street Food Support Fund aims to give funds to up to 30 hawkers for their businesses

Hawker Pang Biau Juan, 39, already has expansion plans for the fried Hokkien prawn mee stall he set up last month. "I hope to have three Mr Prawnie stalls by next year," he declares.

Hawkers like him are hoping to receive Tiger Beer's inaugural Tiger Street Food Support Fund, which will give up to 30 new or aspiring hawkers up to $10,000 each in funding.

Launched in September on Tiger Beer's website, the fund is the beer label's way of helping to preserve local street food culture. It is also part of its street food movement, which was launched in April.

Ms Venus Teoh, head of marketing at Asia Pacific Breweries (Singapore), says: "Tiger Beer decided to embark on this movement as we observed a diminishing public interest in the hawker trade with the rise of new cafes and restaurants around the island."

The fund, she adds, is part of Tiger Beer's long-term efforts to "future-proof" the hawker trade in Singapore. "We hope to inspire people to 'uncage' their potential and follow their dreams of becoming a hawker. We would like to extend a helping hand to help people kick-start their business through this fund," she says.

The fund can be used to cover costs for all aspects of the hawker's business, except rental.

Applications are open to only hawkers who have set up a cooked food stall in a hawker centre or coffee shop since June this year, or who are looking to enter the trade for the first time. They also need to serve local street food dishes to qualify.

Since the fund's launch, Tiger Beer has received 80 applications. A panel of judges comprising management staff from Asia Pacific Breweries (Singapore), such as Ms Teoh and managing director Samson Wong, will assess the applications after the deadline closes on Dec 15 and successful applicants will be notified in January next year.

The Sunday Times speaks to three applicants.

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Banking on seafood soup

Once a bank executive, Mr Aaron Khoo (above) now runs a stall in the Old Airport Road Food Centre selling seafood soup. PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

Tired of the culture in the banking industry, bank executive Aaron Khoo, 32, decided to try his hand at being a hawker.

In June, he partnered the owner of the popular hawker stall, Yan Ji Seafood Soup, and set up the brand's third outlet in August in the Old Airport Road Food Centre.

Known for its rich broth, Yan Ji Seafood Soup has been around for more than 30 years. Its main outlet is at Woodlands Centre Road Food Centre and the second outlet is in a coffee shop at Block 19 Marsiling Lane.

A basic $6 serving of the dish comes with prawns, fish fillet and minced meat patties.

Mr Khoo first tried the dish only in May this year at the Woodlands outlet, after queuing for 11/2 hours. "I remember saying, 'Whoa, this is really good.' The soup had an intense flavour. It had impact," he says, pummelling his fist into the palm of his hand.

He was already contemplating a job switch. He had been working in frontline sales for various banks and was frustrated by the culture. "Everyone wants to get ahead, but no one wants to actually do the work."

With that memorable seafood soup in mind, he started to think seriously about entering the food and beverage industry.

A self-confessed foodie, he used to experiment with different recipes and cook at home on weekends.

He had thought of setting up a cafe with friends, but they shelved that idea because they thought they had no unique dishes. He says: "Yan Ji's product is unique. If I can't create a dish, then why not work with one that is well-known instead?"

After several more tries of the seafood soup, he was convinced this was what he wanted to do.

He approached the owner at the end of May and, by June, they had signed a memorandum of understanding. He quit his job in July, pumped in a five-figure sum together with two others and opened the brand's third outlet in August.

The owner taught him the recipe and Mr Khoo does the cooking at the stall. His parents and wife, who is a human resource executive at a bank, were supportive of the job switch, although they repeatedly asked him if he was sure. "I told them, 'If I don't try, I'll never know.'"

He was prepared for long hours and hard work, but not the frequency of customer complaints.

Yan Ji's owner had told him people usually griped about the small amount of soup. But the recipe that gives the broth its flavour affords only a limited, concentrated amount. "But people don't understand that," he says. "Every day, I have customers coming to ask, 'Why your soup so little?' I explain until my mouth is dry."

If he gets support from the Tiger Street Food Support Fund, he intends to invest in more storage equipment. He has no regrets about entering this industry, although it has been emotionally and physically demanding. "Being a hawker requires a good amount of resilience," he says.

Making kueh her way

Aspiring hawker Deborah Tan, 37, hopes to present her own version of a hipster afternoon high tea. Forget cupcakes, scones or a pricey teatime set at a hotel. She intends to set up a hawker stall selling kueh tea platters.

"I believe you can have a good afternoon tea eating traditional food items," she says. "Nonya kueh are not expensive - you can get them at a fraction of the price of a waffle or a soft-serve ice cream from a cafe."

Ms Tan, who is married to a personal trainer, is the co-founder of a content and communications agency. The couple have no children.

She started baking in June 2013 as a distraction to "stop myself from checking my e-mail", she says. By this year, she felt she had mastered the art of making cupcakes and was getting bored of making them.

In July, she went on a trip to Malacca and bought a pack of butterfly pea flowers. Usually used to make kueh, the flowers yield a blue colouring when crushed.

On a whim, she decided to try making kueh salat - a local layered dessert of glutinous rice topped with a pandan custard - with the flowers.

"Everyone liked it," she says of her family members' verdict. She has a younger sister who works as a teacher, a younger brother who works as an immigration consultant and her parents are retirees.

Encouraged by their stamp of approval, she decided to expand her repertoire of kueh and has since made items such as pulut inti (steamed glutinous rice topped with fresh coconut cooked in gula melaka), ondeh ondeh and kueh dadar.

She says: "They are a challenge to make. There are so many steps that go into making each kueh, and every time you make it, it could turn out differently from the last time."

Despite the difficulty, she enjoys making them.

"Kueh are so colourful and less pretentious than cupcakes or other English cakes."

She got so good at making the kueh that she started exploring ways to sell them. When she saw the open call for applications for the Tiger Street Food Support Fund, she seized the opportunity.

"I have $20,000 set aside to go ahead with my project, but the funding will come in handy," she says.

She intends to spend her capital on stall rental, overheads and a point-of-sale system as well as to buy ingredients and equipment.

If she receives the fund money, it will go towards renovations and engaging a public relations firm to help her with media outreach.

She is excited to see where this project will lead her.

"It's been an eye-opening experience so far. I'm a self-taught kueh-maker. One is never too old to pick up a new skill."

Ex-convict wants to start afresh

Hawker Pang Biau Juan, 39, has opened and closed down stalls 11 times over 14 years, but that has not stopped him from trying.

Last month, he opened Mr Prawnie, a fried Hokkien prawn mee stall in a coffee shop in Ang Mo Kio Avenue 8.

"My motto is to 'just try'," he says. "I will try my best to keep Mr Prawnie going for as long as I can."

His first foray into food and beverage was at age 14, when he helped out at his uncle's chicken rice stall. He started out as a dishwasher, but quickly worked his way up to chef.

He saved his earnings and used about $10,000 to start his own chicken rice stall at the age of 22. Business was good, but he managed his finances poorly. He ran into debt and the stall closed down about a year later.

For the next four to five years, he worked for other chicken rice sellers.

At 27, he had enough to start up again, but more ambitiously this time. In a year, he opened eight stalls bearing the name Heng Leong Hainanese Chicken Rice. At the height of this success, he owned three cars. But he could not find enough staff to match the speedy expansion.

He ended up closing down his most profitable outlet and the rest followed suit. The last Heng Leong shut when he was 31.

"I was disappointed and sad," he says. "I had worked so hard to keep earning more."

Saddled with debts, he returned to working at other hawkers' stalls.

When he was 32, he partnered a hawker who ran both a fried Hokkien prawn mee and char kway teow stall.

One day, when the hawker was finding it hard to cope with the lunch crowd, he told Mr Pang to "just whack". "He told me what to do, just once. About 10 plates later, I got the hang of frying Hokkien prawn mee."

They were on track for success, but Mr Pang split from his partner soon after as they could not agree on the way to take the business forward.

Their earnings could not cover rent and other costs and Mr Pang turned to loan sharks to settle his debts. In return, he became a runner for the loan sharks. He was later arrested and spent 21 months behind bars.

He is grateful his wife and children - a son, 19, and a daughter, 16 - stood by him during this time. His wife, a housewife, took on several jobs so the family could make ends meet.

After his release, he worked in various jobs and saved up about $30,000 to open Mr Prawnie. His version of Hokkien mee, which starts at $5 a plate, comes with prawns and clams as well as house-made sambal chilli.

If he gets support from the Tiger Street Food Support Fund, he wants to open more Mr Prawnie stalls. "My friends tell me I have the skill to cook. I want to work hard and save up for my children's education, one step at a time," he says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 20, 2016, with the headline 'Boost for aspiring hawkers'. Subscribe