Growing up in Tanjong Pagar, entrepreneur Elim Chew, best known for running the streetwear retail chain 77th Street, remembers the parade of street hawkers peddling food near her family's shophouse, where her parents ran a dispensary and a hair salon.
Riding bicycles, she and her siblings would go from hawker to hawker, savouring char kway teow, fried bee hoon and ice balls. Her family also frequented the hawker centres in Maxwell Road and Tanjong Pagar, when the food peddlers relocated.
Now 48, Ms Chew says: "Besides being cheap and good, the taste of hawker fare is one of a kind. Whenever I post photos of hawker food on Facebook, they receive the most number of 'likes', especially from friends overseas."
Given her love for hawker food, it comes as little surprise that she was appointed the head of the Hawker Centre Public Consultation Panel in 2011.
The 18-member panel consisted of head honchos of food and beverage companies and social organisations. In 2012, the panel submitted its recommendations. It suggested having hawker centres run on a not-for-profit basis, transforming them into community spaces with environmentally friendly features, among other recommendations.
Since then, there have been plans to build 20 new hawker centres in the next 12 years, and food companies such as NTUC FoodFare set up one in Bedok late last year, managed by a social enterprise.
Some of the recommendations, such as having tray-return facilities and no subletting of hawker stalls, have been implemented.
But Ms Chew thinks there is more to be done, especially in attracting young people to become hawkers. She says entrepreneurial skills are also crucial in sustaining hawker businesses.
Besides taking over recipes from old hawkers, young hawkers need to be business-savvy to look into franchising and licensing of recipes to companies which can expand the business.
Her 53-year-old brother, Chris, and sister Sulim, 51, own I'm Kim Korean BBQ restaurant in the School of the Arts. Her mother Ooi Kooi Tin, who is in her 70s, is an active church volunteer and her father died from cancer at 52.
What do you think are the challenges that hawkers face these days?
High rental. They cannot make enough to cover operation costs, and limited manpower makes it hard for them to evolve into a franchise or have multiple branches.
How can young hawkers work around this challenge?
They open cafes. In cafes, owners can hire a certain number of foreigners, but hawkers cannot do that.
What do you think about the prices of hawker food?
They should be kept affordable, from $2.50 to $3. But to increase their revenue, hawkers can offer more add-on options, such as extra or premium ingredients at additional cost. Diners appreciate value in their food and are willing to pay.
What is one hawker practice from another country that can be adopted here?
Food suppliers and manufacturers can collaborate with hawkers to lend their brand names to boost business. An example is the Teh Tarik Institute, run by beverage giant Fraser and Neave (F&N) in Malaysia. It trains hawkers to make the drink and certifies them with a plaque. It also supplies condensed milk to these hawkers.
Where do you entertain guests when they come to Singapore?
I take them to restaurants run by social enterprises such as Eighteen Chefs and Laksania, to show that such a business model can be sustainable. I also take them to Maxwell Road food centre, as it has a wide variety of food, and to Geylang Serai to showcase Malay culture and the wet market.
What do you miss most about hawker centres from the past?
When hawker centres get cleaned up, the food tastes too clean. I prefer eating from real utensils than off styrofoam plates and plastic cups. Somehow, the food tastes better. I miss eating food served on opeh and banana leaves.
What are your favourite Singapore foods?
Hokkien mee from Tian Tian Lai in Block 127 Toa Payoh Lorong 1. I love its wet style and strong wok hei fragrance. I call to reserve six packets at one go. I also like the minced pork and century egg porridge at Hoe Kee Porridge in Maxwell Road, and the fried carrot cake (with dark soya sauce) and oyster pancake from Heng Carrot Cake in Newton food centre.
Are you an adventurous diner?
No, I don't like Italian or French cuisines. I still prefer local food. That's why my luggage is filled with instant cup noodles, in laksa or tom yum flavours, when I travel to the United States or Europe. I don't do that when I visit Japan, Korea or Taiwan, which have a wider variety of instant noodles and ramen, such as the Ippudo instant ramen from Japan that tastes better than those served in ramen shops.
What are your eating quirks?
I like to drench my food with sauces, from curry to soya sauces. I eat salad only with Thousand Island dressing. Once, I added so much of it to my greens in a restaurant that I was told to pay for the extra sauce.
I like to follow routines as I do not like to think too much when it comes to food. I ate fried rice and a piece of ham during recess throughout secondary school, and always had fish burger and an orange for lunch when I lived in London.
What is in your home fridge?
It is filled with fish such as seabass, snapper and grouper. I picked up fishing in December last year to take my mind off work, and fish every weekend at D'Best Fishing in Pasir Ris Town Park or Auntie's Pond in Neo Tiew Crescent. I give my catch either to my mum, who cooks fried fish with soya sauce, or to the staff at my siblings' restaurant, who cook them for their meals.
If you could choose anyone to have a meal with, whom would you pick?
My mum, as she is a great cook. After dining out, she tends to replicate the dishes at home. She has made prawn noodles and bak kut teh. She packs the prawn broth into small plastic bags and freezes them. When I come home, I heat up the soup and have it with Foochow fishballs. She also freezes and packs durian pulp into small bags for me.
Do you cook at home?
I do not cook, except for instant cup noodles and barbecuing meats in my siblings' Korean restaurant.
This article was first published on July 05, 2015.
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