Friday, December 30, 2011

Hawker Stories

Dec 25, 2011
The first-generation hawker: A master of heritage food

At just $1.20, hawker Chee Hua Pheow's stir-fried glutinous rice is easily among the cheapest meals sold at Chinatown's Smith Street Food Centre, and possibly island-wide too.

Mr Chee, 62, has kept the price of his hearty traditional fare the same in the last three years despite rising food costs.

This year, with the price of rice and oil going up, the bill for his ingredients has increased by some 30 per cent.

Yet the owner of Niu Che Shui Famous Glutinous Rice refuses to raise his price.

'All my customers are regulars and the least I can do to thank them for their support over the last 40 years is to keep the price low,' he said. 'As long as I can make ends meet, it is okay.'

Mr Chee, whose brother-in-law helps out at the stall, has been able to bring home more than $2,000 every month because of the low rent he pays as a subsidised hawker: $320 a month.

He said in Mandarin: 'People in their 20s and 30s, eager to become hawkers, often approach me to teach them my recipe. But I turned all of them away because I don't want to cause them harm.

'There is no way they can make money selling glutinous rice if they have to pay a few thousand dollars in monthly rent.'

Mr Chee, who has a habit of rocking his body back and forth as he dishes out the rice to queues of customers, started out as a roadside hawker in Trengganu Street in 1969 when he was 20. Then, he sold his fare for just 15 cents.

The secondary school-leaver learnt to cook the Teochew-style dish - the rice is steamed, then fried in shallot oil and tossed with anchovies, dried prawns and roasted peanuts - from his father, a street hawker with a separate stall in Mosque Street.

He was relocated to the Smith Street Food Centre when the building opened in 1983. After the hawker centre was revamped in 2008, his rent rose from $160 to $320.

He said he will retire when he no longer has the stamina to wake up at 3am, six days a week, to cook. The stall opens at 6.30am and he usually sells out by 11am.

He plans to give up his stall then and collect a modest takeover cum retirement fee instead of passing on the business to his only son, a 32-year-old software engineer who is not interested in becoming a hawker.

As for the loss of a heritage food from the local hawker scene by then, Mr Chee shrugged and said: 'It is inevitable. It will be tough for anyone to sell glutinous rice like I do for so cheap, with rents getting higher.'

Huang Lijie

The mid-career hawker: Lower rent a big draw
Mr Rozel John Bacomo's hip-looking pasta stall, Once Upon A Thyme, would fit right in - in a spiffy coffee shop or foodcourt.

But the 29-year-old former restaurant cook chose to open his stall in a hawker centre because it offered the cheapest rental rate.

The Singapore permanent resident from the Philippines pays $1,280 a month for his stall at Golden Mile Food Centre.

Mr Bacomo said he wanted to be his own boss, after spending six years as a cook at Swissotel The Stamford hotel, Mint Cafe in Seah Street and the PS Cafe chain.

The first-time entrepreneur, however, had limited capital so the low cost of opening a stall in a hawker centre appealed to him. He spent about $15,000 to set up and equip the stall.

He also felt the rent at a hawker centre stall would be more stable than that at a coffee shop.

'I have heard from people in the business that some coffee shop owners raise the rent if their tenants do well,' he said.

His Singaporean wife, Gina Tan, 29, a website designer and co-owner of the hawker business, successfully bid for a stall at the popular Golden Mile Food Centre through an open tender by the National Environment Agency in February.

Since becoming a hawker in April, he has had to handle the pressure of being a boss.

'As a cook in a restaurant or cafe, I just had to cook.

'Now, I have to take care of everything, including calculating my costs and making sure I can cover them,' he said. He has a part-time worker who helps with taking orders and serving food.

He has also been clocking 14-hour days instead of eight hours as a wage-earning cook.

But he derives satisfaction from seeing his business grow. He has an increasing pool of repeat customers, mostly office workers in the area who have no qualms about paying between $4 and $6 for his pasta meals when the average price of a meal at the hawker centre is about $3.

He explained that his pasta dishes, such as the $6 butter fish aglio olio, are priced that way because he uses mostly fresh produce, which drives up the cost of his ingredients.

He said: 'I want to do proper Western food, not the type of Singapore-style Western food where everything is deep fried.'

He also hopes to open his own cafe one day.

'For now, I am trying out my food in a hawker centre to see if it will sell, and to gain experience running a business,' he said.

Huang Lijie

The subletter: Business is good
The stall in the Chinatown People's Park Food Centre is barely twice the size of a toilet cubicle, but Ms Lina Ma, 32, willingly pays $5,000 a month to sublet it.

For 12 hours each day, the China-born hawker sells Japanese and Korean bento boxes, prepared with culinary skills she learnt from a chef in her Henan hometown.

A Singaporean permanent resident since 2008, Ms Ma can rent cheaper stalls from the Government, but she said her stall's location cannot be beaten.

'Even at the higher rent, I can take home about $2,000 a month. I don't know if it would be the same somewhere else,' she said.

She took over the stall last month, but has worked in food outlets as a cook since she arrived in Singapore in 2007.

'My husband works as a chef in a restaurant here. Cooking is all we have ever wanted to do,' she said.

She said starting her own stall took courage, but it was worthwhile. 'If you want to succeed as a hawker, the hours are very long and it is very tiring. But you make the decisions and don't have to answer to someone else,' she said.

At $3.50 to $5, her bento boxes are slightly more expensive than other fare in the centre, but she said customers have been willing to pay for the more unusual cuisine.

She saves on costs by hiring just one helper and working the entire shift.

The location has another unique draw: a tightly-knit Chinese migrant community.

More than half of the stalls in the centre are operated by China- born permanent residents.

When The Sunday Times visited the food centre on Friday, the stallholders were seen chatting with each other during the lull periods. They even gave advice to tourists from the mainland.

Such hawker centres with many migrant stallholders are becoming more common with the influx of foreigners into the Republic.

The Sunday Times found that at least 10 stalls in two Bedok hawker centres are also operated by China-born permanent residents. They also sublet the stalls at $5,000 or more a month.

The stall-holders, like Ms Ma, said they were willing to swallow the higher rents because of the established crowds and community.

'There's so much uncertainty when you bid for stalls from the Government,' said Ms Ma. 'Here, I knew exactly how much it would cost and what I'd get in return.'

Feng Zengkun

The middleman: When stalls change hands
Hawkers in the east know property agent Alwyn Chan as the go-to guy when they are retiring and want another hawker to take over their subsidised stalls for a plump fee.

In the past six years, the 27-year-old has helped to broker some 40 takeovers of hawker centre stalls.

He earns a 10 per cent commission on the takeover fee and the deals that he has brokered ranged from $30,000 to $100,000, depending on the popularity of the food centre and the location of the stall.

Hawkers paying subsidised rents who want to quit can return their stalls to the National Environment Agency (NEA) or assign them to someone else.

The new stallholders do not enjoy the same subsidy; their rents are raised from the subsidised level to the market rate over three years. But they can become tenants of coveted stalls in prime locations that have long been occupied by stallholders paying subsidised rents.

The takeover fee, however, is a private transaction between the hawkers and NEA does not keep track of it.

Takeovers are a lucrative, untapped market - something Mr Chan, a senior group director at real estate agency Dennis Wee Group stumbled on by chance.

A few of his early clients were hawkers selling their Housing Board flats who happened to also want to give up their hawker stalls.

Now, he receives calls from aspiring hawkers looking for a prime location to set up stall.

He started out by visiting about three to four food centres every week, seeking out hawkers keen to relocate and take over a stall in a popular location. He made repeated visits to about 20 hawker centres in the east, where he lives.

He would hand out his name card and marketing brochure and chat with stallholders to suss out their interest. He also kept a lookout for prospective customers who wanted to give up their subsidised stalls.

Over time, his network grew and he would get referrals for takeovers through word of mouth.

In the last two years, however, he has stopped spending as much time on matchmaking hawkers in takeover deals and turned his attention to coffee shops instead.

He said: 'Coffee shop takeovers are more lucrative because the changing of hands for a whole coffee shop is in the millions of dollars.'

Huang Lijie

The investor: Making the most of a stall

For 30 years, hawkers Florence Tan and her husband Tan Wai Kok have been selling wonton noodles at the Bedok Kaki Bukit 511 Market and Food Centre.

But three years ago, they started renting out their stall at night to other hawkers.

'We start at 5 in the morning, so we usually don't work at night anyway,' said Mrs Tan, who clocks about 10 hours at the stall each day with her husband.

The couple, both in their 50s, have charged different tenants $1,000 to $1,200 in monthly rent. They declined to reveal their monthly takings from selling noodles.

The couple inherited the stall from Mr Tan's mother, who paid $139,000 to lease it for 20 years in 1997. This means their monthly rent, averaged over the years, is just $580.

The Tans are among a group of savvy investors who look at their stalls as not just a workplace but also as a piece of property.

Mr Su Yuan, 45, a technical officer in the Housing Board, bought a stall at the Aljunied Market and Food Centre for $60,000 from his friend three years ago.

'It seemed like a good investment because everyone eats at hawker centres,' he said. Mr Su charges tenants about $1,300 a month, which will net him a profit of about $34,000 by the time the stall's lease expires in 2014.

Other investors told The Sunday Times that hawker stalls are a better investment option than residential properties as they are cheaper and have fewer restrictions.

An investor, who wanted to be known only as Mr Ng, snapped up four stalls at Chomp Chomp Food Centre in Serangoon Gardens between 2008 and 2009.

He charges about $3,000 rent a month for each stall, and expects to make a 5 per cent profit.

'It's a stable form of investment,' he said.

Feng Zengkun

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