Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Fishball Story’s Douglas Ng reveals what it takes to keep a stall running


NOVEMBER 4, 2014

SINGAPORE — We sometimes take our hawker food for granted and kick up a fuss when prices go up — even if it is by a few cents. Here, Douglas Ng, who was previously co-owner and chef of a cafe but decided to set up his own fishball noodles stall, Fishball Story, shares the struggles of being a new hawker on the scene and why one should pay S$3.50 for a bowl of traditional fishball noodles.

When I started Fishball Story in Golden Mile Hawker Centre (505 Beach Road, #01-85) in April, I priced a bowl of noodles at S$3. I was working very hard, there was a crowd, but I wasn’t making money. I went to do all my sums and realised I was only breaking even. It was impossible to sustain the business and my motivations for being a hawker.

To be honest, there are two reasons I decided to become a hawker: One, pleasing the customers. It gives me a tremendously “shiok” feeling when customers are happy and tell me good things about my dish. The other would be money. It’s impossible to continue on passion alone. After I decided to go the hawker route, I haven’t had any work-life balance — I don’t spend time with my family, I haven’t watched a movie in months and the only time I saw my girlfriend, who lives in Taiwan, was when the hawker centre closed for spring cleaning.

I was filled with self-doubt but I’m stubborn and not the type to give up easily. I decided to implement some changes to make things better, starting with adding a fish dumpling and increasing my price to S$3.50 for a bowl in July. Customers get three fishballs, four fishcakes and one fish dumpling — all handmade — in each bowl of noodles.

Yes, I was worried that people would find it expensive but I didn’t want to think about it. I lost more than 30 per cent of my business after the price increase. Thankfully, many regulars were very supportive and told me I should have done it sooner. While I’m earning slightly more now, business is busy only at lunch time. For a comfortable living, an F&B venture needs to do two good shifts — either breakfast and lunch or lunch and dinner.


Unfortunately, my location isn’t great. I was inexperienced starting out and picked this spot when I saw traffic was not bad on the day I visited. However, as there’s no wet market attached, nobody really comes here for breakfast. And you can forget about a dinner crowd. Another problem is that parking here is rather inconvenient. The carpark gantry doesn’t work properly and there’s always a jam. The office crowd is also thinning out as many offices have moved out.

So when people say that S$3.50 for a bowl of noodles is expensive, I wish they would understand what factors go into (making it) instead of comparing us with cheaper fishball noodles stalls. For young hawkers like myself, we don’t enjoy the cheap rates that older hawkers do. Many old hawkers also own their stalls and they don’t have to worry about making money for rent. I pay S$1,650 a month for my stall here.

As for ingredients ... I make my fishballs and fishcakes and dumpling out of pure yellowtail fish meat based on a recipe adapted from my grandma’s. If I were to use her recipe exactly, there’s no way I could ever price my fishball noodles at S$3.50. In my homemade chilli, I use a lot of ingredients including dried shrimps and shallots, which are expensive and time-consuming to fry. There are also noodles, lard, spring onion, pickles, lettuce, ketchup. Let me give you an example of how things add up — pork lard costs S$3.50 for 1kg and I go through 15kg of lard in four days.


It makes me worried when I think about the future. I don’t know how long I can last. I hope things get better and business will improve. There are some bright moments, which I’m very thankful for — like when I did a bulk order for Singapore Management University, which ordered 150 takeaway bowls from me. Rest assured the noodles are still delicious as I controlled the time taken to cook them; although it can’t beat eating it fresh off the stove.

Coverage in food blogs and newspapers also help bring new customers. And I’m always very touched when my customers bring their kids to try my stall, saying that they want their kids to see a young chap choosing to be a hawker and doing things the traditional way.

I hope I can be a success, and I can share my experiences as a hawker with others who are interested. Personally, when I first began, I had no idea how to start: Should I make my fishballs or start on the chilli first? The first few weeks were so hard and I broke down a couple of times.

Right now, I’m in the midst of looking at other places I can relocate to. I’m eyeing the new hawker centres coming up in Bukit Panjang and Hougang next year. My dream is to have a little franchise with a few stalls in the city and heartlands.

I admit I’m still inexperienced and new. I need time to build up a reputation and a steady pool of customers, which many of the old time hawkers have. But we new hawkers need you to give us a chance. We would love encouragement and feedback. Paying S$3.50 for hawker food will help give us a shot at keeping our food traditions going.

No comments: