'Incubation stalls' can help budding hawkers

'Incubation stalls' can help budding hawkers
Mr Wong, who owns the Mr Salad stall in Amoy Street Food Centre, welcomed the idea of having incubation stalls with basic equipment for aspiring hawkers.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

Aspiring hawkers may get a chance to see if they can make the cut at "incubation stalls", where they will be provided with basic equipment and learn the trade from more experienced hawkers.

This was one of the recommendations in the report submitted by the Hawker Centre 3.0 Committee to the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources yesterday.

Mr Wong Kok Weng, 36, who quit selling mobile phones to start a salad stall in Amoy Street Food Centre in 2015, said having incubation stalls is a great idea.

The first six months were an uphill struggle, he said.

"At first, I wasted a lot of food and time as I didn't know how much and when to prepare."

Despite being surrounded by food, he was eating one meal a day.

"I didn't dare to eat as I didn't know when customers would turn up," he recalled.

"Over time, fellow hawkers gave me advice on the peak hours, and I also learnt that some items can be prepared the night before. But not all stalls are so helpful, as they may be worried that you will take business away from them," added Mr Wong, who runs a one-man show.

Mr Douglas Ng, 26, who started a fishball noodle stall in Golden Mile Food Centre in 2014, said the incubation stalls would be a good start.

He said that whether they really help budding hawkers would depend on whether the hawkers would need to pay rent and other costs during their stint.

This was not specified in the recommendations.

When he started out, Mr Ng forked out $2,500 a month in rent from his savings, and broke even after 11/2 years.

Mr Fabian Toh, 36, who sells Cantonese dessert in Chinatown food centre, represents the latest generation in a family business that goes back to 1966.

He said many new hawkers try too hard to be creative, offer too many varietiesor are overconfident about recipes, which could lead to disappointment.

"If you want to cook something, just cook that something and make sure you do a good job. The rest doesn't really matter," said Mr Toh.

Mr K.F. Seetoh, founder of food guide Makansutra, said implementing the incubation stalls idea would not be simple, as "some dishes require more than basics as a start".

"For example, a bak chor mee (stall) requires blanching stations, mise en place sections and a back wok station to make sauces and sambal, differing from, say, a chicken rice stall," he noted.

"So, this has to be properly managed to meet the expectations of a new and eager set of street food chefs."

Automation and pooling resources the way to go for food centres

At Bukit Merah Central Food Centre, hawkers do not have to wash their own dishes or utensils.

Instead, they pay a fee for their dirty crockery and cutlery to be taken away and washed at a factory, and returned the next morning.

For Madam Irene Koh, 58, that saves her about $400 - the additional amount of money she would have had to fork out each month to hire someone to help her clean up.

"It saves time, labour and water... It has made our lives easier," said Madam Koh, who runs Mei Ji Fish Ball Noodle with her husband.

A central dishwashing service was among the recommendations proposed by the Hawker Centre 3.0 Committee yesterday, to improve productivity at hawker centres, a move that can help keep costs lower for hawkers and, in turn, patrons.

Pooling resources and buying in bulk from suppliers, and using equipment to automate repetitive tasks such as the chopping of vegetables, were also highlighted.

Hawkers interviewed said they were open to buying common ingredients such as noodles, rice, salt and sugar in bulk as that would drive down their expenses, though they would still have to buy their own key ingredients such as prawns, for instance.

As for new machinery, some pointed out that this would be difficult because their stalls were too small.

However, automation made sense for Mr Raymond Tan, 59, who runs a dumpling stall in Block 50A, Marine Terrace, as he got weaker with age.

Last year, he spent $15,000 on a customised wok that stirs its content automatically.

Now, he is able to fry 20kg of pork at a go, double the previous amount. "I think this machine will help me stay in business longer," he said.

Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources Amy Khor, the committee chairman, noted that hawkers are wary of any additional costs, and said the team has suggested that the Government consider an incentive scheme to get them on board such productivity-enhancing initiatives.

"Hawker centres are close to the hearts of Singaporeans, and our recommendations are aimed at supporting Singaporeans who aspire to join the hawker trade, while at the same time ensuring that the public will continue to have access to affordable and tasty food in a clean and pleasant environment," she said.



This article was first published on February 4, 2017.
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