Perks on the menu at struggling food centre

Yishun Park Hawker Centre plans to offer free lunchtime parking, Grab discount codes and more to boost business

Free lunchtime parking and covered walkways are just some of the ways the Timbre Group is trying to woo patrons to dine at Yishun Park Hawker Centre.

The 43-stall establishment in Yishun Avenue 11 has struggled to bring in enough customers since its opening last September.

At a dialogue held at Nee Soon East Community Centre yesterday, hawkers raised issues regarding revenue and infrastructure and complaints about the automated systems at the modern-concept hawker centre.

One of the main concerns is over footfall. Business at the hawker centre, in a primarily residential estate, suffers at lunchtime on weekdays due to the lack of office crowds.

"We're still coping at the moment, but it's not good," said a hawker, who declined to be named, adding that the human traffic was "below par" compared with other hawker centres.

To attract a larger lunchtime crowd, the hawker centre will be rolling out initiatives such as free weekday lunchtime parking from 12pm to 2pm, for a maximum of one hour, starting tomorrow.

It will also partner Grab to offer discount codes to those travelling to the hawker centre.

Other initiatives being planned include constructing sheltered walkways and having an umbrella-sharing programme to boost the centre's business in bad weather.

Some hawkers are optimistic about the plans. Mr Chen Wen Kai, 41, owner of the White Bee Hoon stall, is hoping for a 10 per cent to 15 per cent increase in business.

The hawker centre is the testing ground for a variety of ideas, like an "incubator programme" to give a leg-up to first-time hawkers, some of whom are in their early 20s, and innovations such as a tray-return system and a cashless system, in which patrons paying via a mobile app can get a 10 per cent discount.

Some, however, are unhappy with the discount programme.

"The discount eats into our costs, so when 60 per cent to 80 per cent of the crowd are using the app, we need to mark up the cost to cover the costs," said a hawker who wanted to be known only as Mr Yeo.

He said one-time customers were unlikely to go to the trouble of downloading and transferring credit to the app, and would then be deterred by the marked-up prices.

He added that, including rental, costs for hawkers are ultimately more expensive than at a lot of other hawker centres, and "if this carries on, half the hawkers will be gone".

Eight have already vacated the premises, although three spots have since been filled, with a fourth - a second drinks stall - on the way. There are also plans for a halal drinks stall, said Timbre Group managing director Edward Chia in an interview on Monday.

Meanwhile, the tray-return system has recently been boosted by a lucky draw initiative, in which those who return trays can stand to win up to $500 in credit. Patrons now pay 50 cents to use a tray, which is refunded when it is returned.

"It is a mindset change, which is not going to happen overnight," said Nee Soon GRC MP Louis Ng. "I hope that this isn't the way forward, that everything we want to implement has to be incentivised."

Yishun resident Kai Lin, 19, cited some issues with the innovations. She said: "Some people end up returning only the tray and leaving the bowls and utensils. And for the app, older people don't know how to use it, and... it's troublesome to use the kiosk to top it up."

She said her family members were happy about the discount, but found that the food is generally more expensive than at nearby eateries.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 24, 2018, with the headline 'Perks on the menu at struggling food centre'. Print Edition | Subscribe