I read this BBC article about our Singaporean hawker centres with keen interest.
In 2010, I tried a hand at running a little stall, with little success. Fresh and with zero experience, I jumped into the wonderful world of foods and beverages, selling juices and fruits. It was here that I learned the hard way: if your instinct tells you not to do it… don’t do it. Even if foolish enthusiasm says you should.
The location I chose to do my business was in an old hawker centre at People’s Park. Now, there was a row of fruit shops at the front of the centre, some of whom have been established for decades. Having been in marketing and advertising for so long, I gave poor judgement and actually believed that good marketing could give fight to poor location and strong competitors. Never was I more wrong. I learnt very quickly not to underestimate the sort of relationships these businesses have built with their clientele. And also to heed the old adage of “location, location, location”.
But competition was not the biggest factor of my failure. You’ve probably heard this a hundred million times, but the biggest stumbling block I faced was of manpower. You just couldn’t find someone who would do the job at an affordable rate. No – this was not the type of business that you can just “hire someone to do” and operate it by remote control.
If you’re a young boy with little funding, then you’ll just have to accept the fact, you need to get down and dirty doing the work yourself. My problem at that time then, was I couldn’t – I was operating a marketing agency then and could not possibly divide my time between both. Sure, I got my hands dirty (as well as cut, injured, bleeding cutting oranges and lemons) for the first few weeks, but there is no way that I could continue doing this without sacrificing my main job.
The BBC article was very sanitary.
The hawker reality reeks of freshly fried belachan. You’re sitting in 32/33 degree weather surrounded by burning, boiling, frying and you are perpetually perspiring. The smells of meat, stale food and curry stay on your clothes and your skin, no amount of washing can rid you of that smell.
At that time, I didn’t drive. I took the bus, trains, taxis and even remember running to buy watermelons when I ran out of it. I look back at this with a bit of humour, running around with two stupid watermelons in a sports bag… but at that time, it wasn’t funny! I was once so exhausted, I tripped my clumsy self on an escalator at the MRT station, had a small chunk of heel sliced off and was bleeding all the way home.
Do I think that this country would face a dearth of hawkers? Well I don’t have the data to understand the take up rates, but based on common knowledge, I’m still pretty bullish on the hawker business. It is not a sexy occupation, you do have to put in a lot of manual work and it is a very skill based career.
There will always be a segment of people who are better in skills, like cooking, than in school based subjects. Pair this with a population that loves their food and a culture of eating out. This delightful marriage cooks up many new opportunities and the hawker landscape has much room for evolution.
I’m not as pessimistic as the MEWR minister is, I actually think the hawker centre will become leaner, cleaner and serving better dishes than what we see today.
Because when the hawker goes home at the end of the day to count his keep, he’s providing for his family, he’s equipped with skills and working an honourable profession and he takes great pride knowing that people pay him everyday for the food he makes. When his friends see him becoming successful, they too will follow suit.
And as for people like me? Ha, ha… maybe next time I’ll try again… but I’m happy to be your case study on how not to run a F&B business 😛