For the past few years, empty chairs and tables were a common sight, even at mealtimes, at the Kopitiam Square food centre in the heart of Sengkang.
High prices - owing to high rentals - and a lack of variety kept crowds away from the centre located next to Sengkang MRT station, and stallholders then departed in droves.
"That was a very bad time," said Mr Bahari Mohamed Amin, 50, who has run Residence Barbers at Kopitiam Square for three years. "It was like a ghost town."
These days, lowered rents and renovations have brought the centre, which has 60 food stalls, back to full occupancy. At dinner time, a seat is hard to come by.
This marks quite a turnaround for Singapore's first privately built and owned food centre and wet market, which opened in 2009. It was part of a government move to experiment with different management models for hawker centres. Another model, the social enterprise-run Kampung at Simpang Bedok, closed after eight months due to financial problems. It reopened last month after a remodelling.
Similarly, the Kopitiam Square model had struggled. Residents had expressed concern when Renaissance Properties, a subsidiary of foodcourt chain Kopitiam, won the tender to run the centre at $500,100 a month, more than double the next highest bid.
Their fears - that this would send rents and food prices soaring - were realised. Within a year of opening, 15 out of 60 food stalls had left. By January 2013, only a third of the food stalls remained.
Today, only a handful of stalls have stuck with Kopitiam Square since its start, among them Hwee Sao Fish Soup and Congee.
Its owner, Ms Zeng Li Zhen, 47, said in Mandarin: "At one point, I no longer wanted to do it any more, but we still had some loyal customers and I couldn't bear to give the stall up."
In the first half of last year, Kopitiam slashed rentals by as much as 70 per cent, in order to get stallholders to lower prices.
Ms Zeng said her monthly rent used to be $9,000, but it is now $3,400. She charges $4.20 for sliced fish soup, down from $5 before. She was so heartened by the lower rents that she opened another stall about four months ago, selling claypot rice. She is contemplating taking over a third stall.
Besides lower rents, the premises have also been spruced up with new tables and stools, better signage for stall fronts, and two huge ceiling fans.
A Kopitiam spokesman said they are "making food prices more affordable and competitive, offering more food choices".
Asked about costs, he said: "Of course, we are having to absorb costs now, but we are looking at the longer term. It takes some time for a food centre in any young estate to flourish, and we see high demand here."
The new rents have drawn food stalls ranging from those offering Thai seafood to Malaysian lok-lok, or hotpot skewers.
Ms Zoey Neo, 23, is among a bevy of young hawkers throwing in their lot with Kopitiam Square. She helps her mother manage Korean food stall Meogja, which opened last November.
"We see a lot of potential in this place, and the rental is reasonable," Ms Neo said. "There's new housing coming up, and also the new Sengkang Hospital."
When The Straits Times visited the centre on a recent weekday, the lunchtime crowd appeared thin, apart from an influx of workers from nearby construction sites queuing up for economy rice.
As the sun set, however, it filled up with young families and people going home after work.
Mr Daniel Hong, 33, co-owner of the popular 12_45 Mookata stall, which serves Thai barbecue steamboat, said it gets an estimated 300 to 400 customers a day on weekends.
Minister of State for Trade and Industry Teo Ser Luck, Mayor for the North East District, said he has been working with Kopitiam since 2011 to get prices down, following residents' feedback.
Mr Teo, who made a Facebook post on Jan 7 hailing the centre's revival, said food centres like Kopitiam Square were "an integral part of heartlander life". "For me, it was not just a commercial but a social issue, and I wanted to work with the operators to provide for the needs in the community."
Ms Elim Chew, an entrepreneur who heads a panel set up by the Government in 2011 to rethink the way hawker centres operate, hoped this is a wake-up call. She said: "It is unhealthy to over-tender. Rentals have to be affordable, so this can be passed down as affordable food for all, and as benefits for the larger community."
Residents such as retiree Deng Feng Lian, 65, welcomed the cheaper food. "It's very important to have a cheap place to fill your
stomach, especially for old people who don't work," she said.
Others, such as Mr Cliffven Tan, do not think prices have changed significantly, but eat at the centre for a lack of options.
Said the 26-year-old, who works at a publishing house: "Compass Point is always crowded and the Koufu food court in Compassvale Street is quite far. So I come once a week with my friend and eat at whichever stall that has the shortest queue."
Actor and comedian Henry Thia, 62, a Sengkang resident, said the wider array of cuisine and improved prices have made him a lunchtime regular. "It used to be really quiet here," he said in Mandarin. "Now when I come at night, there is no place to sit.
"I hope they will keep the prices low. A hawker centre must have prices for the public."
This article was first published on Jan 16, 2015.
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