You may just find yourself pleasantly surprised.
In February this year, Tiger Beer Singapore presented financial grants of $10,000 each to 25 current and future professionals in the hawker trade in Singapore. Touted as the Tiger Street Food Support Fund, this is part of an ongoing effort by Tiger Beer to promote and support the hawker trade in Singapore. While you may associate hawkers with middle-aged “uncles” and “aunties”, a surprising number of these recipients are actually young and ambitious millennials.
We speak to three of them to find out more about the challenges they face, and how they tackle them.
Silas Lee, 29
After graduation, Silas tried his hand at Public Relations but less than three months into the job, he couldn’t stand it anymore. He left to be a bartender at Ding Dong, a modern-Asian bar. His daily interactions with distinguished chefs, floor staff, and fellow bartenders convinced him he had found his calling in the food and beverage industry. He says, “I knew I was going to be the food business for a long, long time to come.”
Tell us a bit about your stall.
“I started this stall with one concept in mind (Corner Burger) and eventually found the footing and energy to establish a separate concept that pays homage to my time in Ding Dong (Kampung Bowl). My chef-partner Desmond Yong came on board in January 2017 to help me realise a crazy vision – that we could offer BOTH burgers and Southeast Asian rice bowls from the same kitchen, allowing our ideas, ingredients, techniques, influences of both East and West, old and new, to intermingle in all sorts of exciting ways. Customers love what we do. Our six core items are – Wagyu Beef & Cheese burger, Black Pepper Chicken Burger, Fu Ru (fermented tofu) Tonkatsu Burger, Beef Adobo, Ayam Masak Merah, and Babi Pongteh. We run weekly specials of about two new items for each side – Otak Otak Charcoal Burger and Green Chicken Curry are our present ones. It’s been a blast.”
What were some challenges you faced during your journey?
“There were a few physical ones, inescapable given the age of the coffee-shop: power trips, slow drainage, weary exhaust hoods that don’t provide as much circulation – but these I’ve learnt to overcome over the past few months.The biggest challenge is constantly remembering that respect for one’s seniors, whether they are fellow stall operators or guests, is the most important value to hold close. While it is easy to say, hey, I have done my fair share in this industry and deserve some recognition too, the coffee-shop is a completely different arena. Every action I take is regarded with scrutiny from the elders, and I take utmost care in making sure that in my constant quest for F&B culture innovation, I don’t tread on the toes of certain traditions.”
How do you cope with challenges?
“It helps that the beer in this coffee-shop is fairly-priced! Also, we keep a bottle of Hendrick’s gin in the fridge, together with a case of Fever Tree tonic. They help plenty. Also, communication, communication, communication. In English, Chinese, Cantonese, Hokkien, and Tamil. It’s important to bring everybody to a common understanding as quickly as possible so nobody has time to stay angry with each other.”
Corner Burger is located at 228 East Coast Road
Lois Er, 26
From crunching numbers in an Accountancy degree to crunchy fried chicken? After three years of slogging at her degree course, Lois knew Accountancy wasn’t for her. However, she still didn’t know what she wanted and dabbled for a bit in graphic design. It was only when her dad suggested they open a food business together that she realised she’d found what she wanted to do. She says, “When my father proposed the idea of running our own food business, I jumped at the opportunity. I thought, ‘When else would I ever get a chance to do something like that?'” While the journey has not been easy, Lois says she has no regrets.
Tell us about your hawker stall.
“We are called Wonderfull Nasi Lemak and as cringe inducing as the pun goes, we really hope to deliver a wonderful and full meal to anybody that comes to our stall. We hope that people who have eaten our food would taste the sincerity that we’ve put in and that the food has been served from our hearts. We’ve always focused a lot on the food and been perfecting the recipe from the very beginning.”
What are some unexpected challenges you’ve faced?
“To be honest, it’s sometimes hard to even draw people in to even try our food. Even though we provide delicious and value-for-money food, the crowd takes awhile to grow. There were several factors involved that we did not anticipate. For example, with Old Airport Road Hawker Centre being one of the largest food centres in Singapore, competition is high. Moreover most would come with a dish in mind that they already want to eat. It is not a place that people go to for nasi lemak.”
How do you cope with these challenges?
“We are blessed to have tremendous support from family and friends and it is with their encouragement that we persevere on.”
Wonderfull Nasi Lemak is located at #01-96, 51 Old Airport Road
Aaron Khoo, 33
Formerly a Management Trainee at Standard Chartered Bank, Aaron has worked at several other banks as well as stints in the Advertising sector. However, he always had a nagging feeling that he wanted to do something more fulfilling. When he chanced upon Yan Ji Seafood Soup with a friend, they felt there was a demand for this type of food in Singapore but the location (in Woodlands) was too far for most Singaporeans. He said, “We decided to make this seafood soup more accessible by bringing it to a more central location – Old Airport Road Food Centre.”
Tell us about some of the challenges you face.
“One of the main challenges we face is the fixed amount of soup that we serve in each portion. Our cooking method differs from other seafood soups; we still choose to cook one serving per pot as this is the only way to extract the maximum amount of flavour from the main ingredients using minimum flavourings or additives, giving the soup that robust taste. The downside to this is the longer than usual processing time and the limited broth. Addition of the soup base would only cause a dilution of the broth as our soup base is a clear soup; vastly different from the broth that is served. The flavourful broth is a result of the ingredients that we use and the high heat from the stove. Hence, due to this cooking process, we are unable to provide soup top-ups even if customers are willing to pay for it. The only way we can reproduce the same broth is to cook another serving.
As this is somewhat different from the usual soup based dishes served by other stalls which allow customer to return to top up the soup, it does aggravate customers as they are not used to not being able to top up the soup. Customers would point at our soup pot and say that “You have such a big pot of soup. Add more soup also cannot?”
How do you cope with these challenges?
“We try our best to educate customers why we are unable to provide soup top-ups. However, most of the customers do not want to believe us, choosing to believe we are just being stingy. Some of them do not even want to listen to our explanation once they have been turned down, and will visibly show their annoyance. In some cases, we let the customer taste our soup base to show them the contrast between the soup base and the soup that is served. But in return, we are questioned on why we don’t figure out a way to add more soup.
While these incidences can be trying, we still to maintain our composure and explain to the customer politely that by adding more soup, it will dilute the taste that many have come to love and enjoy.
Positive feedback from our regular customers and new customers who enjoy our food also help to negate the effects of hostility from other customers. When we encounter hostile behaviour, it can take quite a toll, especially after the many hours of preparation and service. So when we speak to customers who appreciate what we do and sincerely enjoy the food we serve, it makes up for all the unpleasant incidents.”
Yan Ji Seafood Soup is located at 01-122, 51 Old Airport Road