Many hawker stalls named on Bib Gourmand list run by young people

SINGAPORE - When one is thinking of hawkers in Singapore, it is likely that the stereotypical image of an aged auntie or uncle will come to mind. After all, most of the stalls run in Singapore today continue to be helmed by older folk - gatekeepers of carefully guarded recipes and time honoured tradition.

But as the Bib Gourmand list in the inaugural Michelin Guide for Singapore would suggest, perhaps there is something to be said for young blood reinventing the industry.

Of the 34 establishments honoured last Thursday, at least nine are run by young first-time hawkers or multi-generational families, with the second and third generation stepping up to the plate to keep their traditional family businesses alive.

Even at well-known establishments such as Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice in Maxwell Road Food Centre, Balestier Road Hoover Rojak in Whampoa Makan Place and 328 Katong Laksa in East Coast Road, customers are now being served by scions of the original business owners, many of whom have sacrificed comfortable hours and steady paychecks to keep the hawker culture going.

For Balestier Road Hoover Rojak's Stan Lim, 43, being named on the Bib Gourmand list is a real honour, especially considering he gave up a decade-long job in sales three years ago to take over the business from his father.

He says: "It has been really encouraging, especially given how tough life can be when you are a hawker. But for me, it's been a pleasant surprise - especially since ours is such a handcrafted dish."

This is also the case for two first-time hawkers on the Bib Gourmand list: Gwern Khoo, 35, co-owner of Singapore-style ramen joint A Noodle Story in Amoy Street Food Centre and Douglas Ng, 25, owner of The Fishball Story at Timbre+ in Ayer Rajah Crescent.

For Khoo, the win was "particularly sweet" given his business has been running for only three years.

Both he and Ng knew early on that realising their dreams of running hawker stalls meant letting go of their more "illustrious" careers in the food and beverage industry.

Khoo had worked at high-end restaurants such as Waku Ghin and Iggy's and Ng ran his own Chinese fusion zi char restaurant in Anson Road.

Still, for Khoo, who started the business with his Shatec classmate Ben Tham, 34, there are no regrets about leaving behind his fine- dining past despite having to work gruelling 15-hour days in an environment that can get "unbearably hot" at times.

He says of his decision: "Starting a hawker stall can be the best way for young entrepreneurs to test out our ideas and concepts because it is a low-cost platform. It is undoubtedly a hard life, but then again, you shouldn't go into this line if you're in it for the short-term benefits."

Like him, Ng was quick to reiterate that the public should cherish Singapore's beloved hawker culture and not make snap decisions about hawkers just because they see long lines at a stall.

"At the end of the day, the public don't see the struggles hawkers have to go through to make a living - such as the time I raised my prices by 50 cents, but ended up losing 50 per cent of my business," says the Nanyang Polytechnic graduate of the difficulties he has faced since starting his stall in 2014.

"Many of us are doing this to keep tradition and culture alive. For this trade to keep going, it is important that the perception of hawkers and hawker food changes for the better."

And it seems that it is exactly this overhaul of the industry that these young ones are hoping to do - be it introducing technology to make their processes more efficient or putting their decades-old businesses on social media.

For the children of the owners behind 328 Katong Laksa and Bismillah Biryani in Dunlop Street, joining the business has meant taking traditionally run businesses into the 21st century.

Mr Ryan Koh, 33, whose mother started 328 Katong Laksa 18 years ago, has improved efficiency in the kitchens by introducing new equipment and upgrading point-of-sales technology at their six outlets across the island.

His two younger siblings, a brother, 32, and a sister, 30, also work in the business.

Like him, Ms Zara Salahuddin, 26, is also working at the back-end of her father's biryani business by helping him with styling and photography for his menus and updating social media accounts for the business.

The National University of Singapore honours graduate, who majored in industrial design, says: "Even though I had to coax my dad to convince him to put the business on social media, I feel that he considers ideas differently when they come from a family member because he knows we always have the best interests of the business at heart."

It is perhaps this passion that runs in their veins that has helped many of these traditionally run family businesses thrive, even in the hands of a much younger generation of bosses.

Since helping with his father's bak kut teh business Song Fa in 2006, Mr Yeo Hart Pong, 35, has expanded it from one small stall in a coffee shop to a successful chain with six outlets across the island. A seventh outlet is opening at Jem next month.

Ms Yap Xin Ling, 34, whose family started Na Na Curry in 1989 in Marina South, is also helping launch an e-commerce portal for the business so that customers will be able to order curry for delivery.

She says of her decision to take over the business one day: "It is undoubtedly a difficult industry, but it is one that can be extremely satisfying and rewarding if you have the passion for the business.

"At the end of the day, the recognition and awards are very encouraging. But to me, it is the desire to keep time-honoured traditions alive that makes it all worthwhile."

This article was first published on July 17, 2016.
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