Newton's back, but not the crowds

Newton Food Centre.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

More than a month since Newton Food Centre reopened, many stall owners said the crowds have still not quite returned.

A few stalls which raised prices - in anticipation of a rental hike following the food centre's three-month upgrading works - said they would not change their prices despite this.

However, the public agency involved has stated that hawker rents do not rise after maintenance works.

Newton Food Centre was shut between Feb 1 and April 24 this year, and minor renovations were carried out by its operator, the National Environment Agency (NEA).

Following the refurbishment, the food centre has spacious aisles as well as new toilets, among other things.

A month ago, hawkers told The Straits Times that the usual crowd numbers had not returned shortly after the food centre reopened.

The situation appears to have persisted.

When The Straits Times visited the food centre over four days in the past two weeks, 14 out of 20 stalls approached said crowds at Newton were thinner than a year ago. Four stalls said they had more customers, while two said there was no difference.

Newton has 83 stalls.

Ms Sally Pong, who runs Nanyang Delight, which sells local dishes like chicken rice, said that a year ago, she used to receive orders from about 100 people a day.

"But now, this has (dropped) to around 80 to 90."

Sin Sin BBQ's owner, who wanted to be known only as Madam Ang, said she used to get nearly 150 customers a day a year back, but now this has dropped to below 100 a day.

But some stall owners said business has remained about the same.

Said Ms Cindy Tan, owner of Singa Cafe: "My business hasn't changed much, but I do see other stalls getting much (smaller) crowds than they used to.

"Over the three months of renovation, our regular customers have gone elsewhere."

Many stall owners also believe that many are still unaware that the food centre has reopened.

PSB Academy student Meriam Philip, 21, said she used to frequent Newton during lunch breaks before the renovation, but has yet to go back since it reopened.

"I enjoy the food, but during the renovation, I had my meals at foodcourts in Orchard. I didn't know (Newton) reopened," she said.

Food blogger Glenn Lee said that uncertainty in the global economy could have affected tourist spending at Newton.

According to preliminary estimates by the Singapore Tourism Board, overall spending by tourists fell by 6.8 per cent last year, the first decline since 2009.

The Ministry of Trade and Industry expects Singapore's growth this year to come in at 1 per cent to 3 per cent. Singapore's economy grew 2 per cent last year.

For Mr Michael Lai, who runs Jianfa Seafood and depends mainly on local customers, sales have dipped by nearly 50 per cent from last year.

Some hawkers like Delight Grilled Seafood's owner Tan Chui Ngoh, are worried about raising prices, with the crowds staying thin. "I'm scared to charge more even if my costs increase as I do not want to turn away customers."

This is not an issue for a few stalls such as Bee Heng Popiah, which raised the price of its popiah from $2 to $2.20.

Another stall, XO Mincemeat Noodle, raised the price of a bowl of noodles by 50 cents. Both initially cited the possibility of rising rentals for the price hikes.

However, NEA states on its website that "hawkers' rentals are not raised because of maintenance or repairs and renovation works".

This includes the works done during Newton Food Centre's three-month closure.

Conservancy charges and table-cleaning charges at Newton are understood to remain unchanged despite the maintenance works.

In spite of this, Bee Heng Popiah and XO Mincemeat Noodle said they would not lower prices.

An assistant at the popiah stall who wanted to be known only as Mr Tan, 60, clarified later that "other factors, like increased cost of ingredients, or the packaging we use, led to our price hike".

Newton still pricier than other food centres

Newton Food Centre has a fresh look, with more spacious aisles, shelters for some tables and new toilets. But one thing never changes: high food prices.

Netizens were irked by how one stall sold two pieces of plain prata for $5. They usually cost $1.80 at other hawker stalls, according to a survey by the Consumers Association of Singapore (Case) last year.

Mr S. Abdulla, 24, a stall assistant at the Faizur Famous Muslim Food, which sells the $5 prata, explained that the price of the dish is his stall's "standard" price.

"(We) have maintained these prices before and after renovation, without change. It's simply to meet the rent and other expenses," he told The Straits Times.

Prices of common local dishes sold at seven stalls in Newton are higher than those at other hawker centres, Case's survey of 584 hawker stalls - excluding those from Newton - found last year.

The Straits Times visited the renovated food centre on May 31.

Chicken nasi briyani goes for $5.90 to $7, compared with $5 elsewhere.

Chicken rice is $4 to $5, higher than the $3 at other centres. Newton's fishball noodles go for $4 to $4.50, but other hawker stalls sell the dish for $3.

Many stall owners at Newton cited high maintenance costs, rent and their customer base for setting prices higher than those of other hawker centres.

For some stalls like Indian Palace, having European expatriates and tourists making up the bulk of their customers means the high prices can be maintained.

Indian Palace's owner, Mr Man Kumar, said his customers are ready to pay for the "authentic Indian cuisine sold at the stall, despite the higher price".

His business has remained steady even from a year ago after Newton reopened.

He sells a plate of butter prawns for $19. Similar dishes cost between $16.90 and $22.90 at restaurants listed on food review site HungryGoWhere and food delivery service Foodpanda.

Teacher Louis O'Donnell, 30, said food at Newton has always been expensive, but "I enjoy food at (Indian Palace), so I don't mind the price".

This article was first published on June 11, 2016.
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