HEROES MADE AT HOME

University students launch website to help users order directly from hawkers during Covid-19 circuit breaker

One developed a website to give hawker stalls a greater online presence. Another held a film screening and post-session discussions online to recapture the communal experience of cinema. The Sunday Times speaks to five groups who have responded to circuit breaker measures in creative ways that have made Singaporean lives a tad better.

From left: FoodLeh? team member Joyce Sin helped co-creators Lim Yi Fan and Ng Chee Peng with the coding for the website, which allows people to search for food stalls near them by entering a postal code.
From left: FoodLeh? team member Joyce Sin helped co-creators Lim Yi Fan and Ng Chee Peng with the coding for the website, which allows people to search for food stalls near them by entering a postal code.PHOTO: FOODLEH?

Two university students noticed hawkers struggling to cope with the circuit breaker measures and decided that the stalls needed a boost online.

FoodLeh?, the fledgling website they went on to create, allows people to search for food stalls near them by typing a postal code, quickly showing users the stalls' addresses and the numbers to call to place orders.

It aims to be a one-stop shop for finding food and beverage places, cutting out "middle men" platforms that charge hawkers a commission to be listed on their apps.

"Covid-19 played a critical role in the birth of our app. We noticed that many F&B places are closed and many more are struggling with overheads and have to use delivery platforms," co-creators Lim Yi Fan and Ng Chee Peng said in an e-mail reply to The Sunday Times.

"We realised that these hawkers needed another way to reach out to customers."

More than 2,500 restaurant owners have come together to petition food delivery platforms to lower commissions, which have risen to as much as 30 per cent of revenue.

In an open letter to the platforms, the Government and customers this month, they urged people to order directly from outlets for takeaway and delivery. Many have come up with their own delivery systems. FoodLeh?, a crowd-sourced platform which gives basic information on hawker stalls, aims to facilitate this process.

Mr Lim, a computer science and business student, and Mr Ng, who studies dentistry, coded for five days to build the website and launched it on April 22.

They incorporated features such as the sorting of stalls by their distance from users. Customers can give feedback through "virtual claps", which the website creators said would motivate hawkers during this trying period and also alert other foodies of the good stalls.

 
 
 
 

"Our goal is for hawkers to be able to create a listing in five minutes without needing to create an account. We hope the lack of technological know-how will not be a barrier to access it," they said.

The response so far has been "overwhelming". "We had 11,000 viewers last Wednesday to Friday alone and have already exceeded the free tier limit for our Google Firebase server."

FoodLeh? had initially copied more than 200 listings from The Smart Local (TSL) - another website - without its permission. The pair told The Straits Times that they have apologised unreservedly in public and directly to TSL, and posted an apology on its website.

They have also removed all copied listings and directed viewers to check out TSL’s directory on the Foodleh? main page.

"We've never hosted a public website before,” they said. “We made a huge mistake… as we were in a hurry to get the website out.” 

“We are a couple of students who are back home because of Covid-19 outbreak and we want to help the community out. In our haste, we neglected some areas. We hope everyone can give us a chance to make amends.”

TSL managing director Bryan Choo said that its team of three staff should be credited for coming up with the original idea of a food delivery directory with no middleman charges and for working tirelessly to compile the listings in two weeks.

"Foodleh? reached out to us with an apology for copying the listings and displaying images on their site using our server's bandwidth, and we've agreed to move on," he said. "Their directory was started with good intentions, so we wish them all the best."

The site now has 60 listings and the team is working to create more. The creators hope the website will remain relevant even after the pandemic ends.

"We hope this digitisation will help to transform awareness of hawkers, so we can all try hawker food beyond our neighbourhoods," they said.

"We have plans to allow members of the public to run the site themselves under the supervision of moderators."

Editor's note: This article has been updated to provide more information on The Smart Local and Foodleh?

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 26, 2020, with the headline 'Website helps users order directly from hawkers'. Subscribe