SINGAPORE - While working in various corporate jobs, Ms Poh Ying Min always harboured dreams of opening her own healthy food business.
The former senior marketing executive regularly prepared and packed salads for lunch and when colleagues suggested that she sell them, she decided to take a chance.
Since July, the 29-year-old has been running a customised salad bowl stall at Block 163 Bukit Merah Central Food Centre under the Incubation Stall Programme - a subsidised programme to help new hawkers.
"Definitely it's tough, long hours, but the sense of satisfaction is different from working in the corporate world," said Ms Poh, who earns less now than in her previous full-time job.
Demand for the programme by the National Environment Agency (NEA) has been growing, with more than 40 people vying for 13 stalls since it was launched in February.
Due to the strong response, two more stalls have been added, bringing the total to 15, Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources, Dr Amy Khor announced on Wednesday (Oct 10).
The programme lets aspiring hawkers rent a hawker stall for six months at half the market rate.
They are also provided with basic equipment like stainless steel shelves, worktops, fridges, a display shelf and sinks, which they would have to pay for otherwise.
Applicants must fulfil a set of criteria and 10 stalls are currently occupied.
The age of the stallholders taking part in the programme ranges from 27 to 42 - which compares to the median age of 59 for hawkers in Singapore, according to research published last year.
Dr Khor was visiting Block 163 Bukit Merah Central Food Centre and Block 20 Ghim Moh Road Market and Food Centre, where three of the incubation stalls are located.
"We will continue to monitor the take-up rate and get feedback from earlier batches of incubation stall holders before we decide whether we should add more (stalls)," she said.
Of the first three participants who joined the programme in February, two decided to quit the scheme and the other was granted an extension until April next year, as she was looking for a permanent stall.
To be eligible for the programme, applicants must have attended either the Introduction to Managing a Hawker Business course run by the Institute of Technical Education, or a similar course, or have graduated from a business management course offered at a tertiary institution.
They must also present a business plan and undergo a food tasting panel assessment.
Preference is given to those whose direct family members do not manage or operate a food stall or food shop.
Ms Poh said that starting out with no experience in the food and beverage sector was a challenge, as she struggled with balancing vegetable orders and demand from customers.
But she has since adapted and attracted customers with her homemade wasabi sesame sauce.
Also running an incubation stall at Block 163 Bukit Merah Central Food Centre is Mr Kwan Yee Liang, who sells handmade noodles.
The former part-time bartender learnt the recipe from a Malaysian friend and spends one to three hours every morning making the noodles himself.
And he said the hard work has paid off. He now earns about $3,000 a month, up from $2,000 when he did part-time work.
Meanwhile, an NEA spokesman said that the agency is aware of food critic K.F. Seetoh's latest post on his Makansutra website to better regulate not-for-profit hawker centres, and is looking into the issues he raised.
In a post in August, Mr Seetoh had said that rents at social enterprise hawker centres, where hawkers struggle to pay high operating costs, were unsustainable.
In his latest post on Tuesday (Oct 9), the food consultant noted that "binding" tenancy agreements allowed fees to be raised "anytime".
Mr Seetoh highlighted the case of a hawker, who complained that he had to pay $400 to $800 for a "cashback" scheme in which the hawker had to pay 20 cents to every customer who returns a tray.
He also posted a contract clause which states that a hawker who decides to give up his stall will have to pay for the remaining lease, unless a replacement is found. Mr Seetoh urged NEA to take back control of the hawker centres.
Currently, seven out of 114 hawker centres are new centres managed by social enterprises and cooperatives.
Last week, Dr Khor told Parliament that the management model will continue to be refined and improved.