SINGAPORE - When the market and food centre at Block 117, Aljunied Avenue 2, reopened in August after renovations, drinks stall owner Cheo Kah Wee was expecting roaring business.
Three months on, business has been so poor that the 38-year-old said: "I have more birds at the tables than customers."
It is apparently so poor that Mr Cheo, whose parents started the stall 40 years ago, is contemplating closing down.
Most of the 10 stall owners The New Paper spoke to in the food centre, which was closed for two months for the renovation, also reported poor business.
Some reasons given: Many of the wet market stalls are not open, a quarter of the 79 stalls in the food centre are still shuttered and there is competition from alternative places.
While the centre still attracts a crowd during lunchtime, stallholders claimed that it is smaller than before. And the breakfast and dinner crowds are worse.
Mr Kang Kaiming, a prawn noodle seller, said in Mandarin: "Only a few stalls are open at the wet market. When the aunties don't visit the market, they won't come here to eat."
A 50-year-old chicken rice seller, who gave her name as Ms Liew, said her business has dropped by 30 per cent.
"There are no longer stalls in the market that sell fish and dry goods, so residents don't come here any more."
The food centre is deserted at dinner time as most stalls typically close after lunch.
Mr Cheo said his business has dropped by about 40 per cent.
"If this continues, I may have to close down because keeping the stall open costs a lot in rental and utilities."
He opens from 7am to 9pm daily. He said: "My profit is not that much, so I have to open longer."
Another chicken rice seller, Mr Low Kerng Huat, 55, put the blame on big supermarket players for taking business from the market and food centre.
He said in Mandarin: "Times have changed. Gone is the urgency to buy at the market because there are now 24-hour supermarkets nearby. The crowd has dispersed to other places."
He added that customers went to alternative places to eat during the centre's closure and many have not returned.
Some stall owners close early because of poor business. By 4pm, almost 80 per cent of the stalls are closed.
Ms Liew, who used to open till 8pm, now closes four hours earlier. She lamented: "No customers, how to sell?"
Some stallholders said they depend on their regular customers to survive.
Mr Watt Chow Tuck, 57, who sells wonton noodles, said: "We have been here for very long, so our regulars will return. If your food is good, your regulars will not run away."
Some customers told TNP that several stalls have not reopened after the renovation, thus limiting their food choices.
Madam Lynn Teoh, 31, said her favourite stall selling Penang food was gone. The Malaysian, who works here as an administrative executive, said: "I'm from Penang and now that the stall has closed, I'll miss food from my hometown."
Another customer, Madam Zhang, 57, said she usually eats at coffee shops nearby after her favourite yong tau foo stall closed down.
Many of the stalls that closed down were owned by first-generation old-timers who opted to retire after their 20-year lease expired this year, said Mr Low, whose chicken rice stall has been around for about 20 years.
Mr Low said the old-timers were given the choice of accepting compensation of between $18,000 and $23,000, or renewing the lease for another three years at a subsidised cost.
"They would rather take the money and retire. Some of their children are managers and doctors. Why would they still want to continue working?" he said.
The National Environment Agency said that all 23 vacant stalls at the food centre were offered for tender last month and 19 were taken up and will start operating from next month.
A price hike after the renovation could have also put off the customers.
Said Madam Teoh: "Some food stalls have increased their food prices by 50 cents. Drinks prices have gone up by 10 cents."
But the regular, who eats there with her auxiliary police officer husband, Mr Elvis See, 28, said: "We don't have much choice. Food at other coffee shops is not as nice. Furthermore, we live and work nearby."
Mixed results at other food centres
It is the first week back in business for stallholders who moved from 207, New Upper Changi Road, to their new premises at Block 208B.
They told The New Paper that they are pleased with the new premises, with most considering it an improvement from the previous building.
Madam Tan, 54, who works at a drinks stall, said: "The building is new, so it is cleaner and more spacious."
Business has also improved.
Mrs Suria, a 44-year-old Malay food stall worker, said the new location is more accessible. "There have been more people since we reopened as the building is nearer to a bus stop."
Retiree Ronald Lee, 64, said: "The old building was dim and congested, but this new one is bright and spacious. It is a better environment overall."
However, stallholders at the Ayer Rajah Food Centre at Block 503, West Coast Drive, are lamenting a drop in business.
The food centre was closed for repair and repainting from June 1 to July 13. Duck rice stall worker Ah Soon said that business had dropped by almost 50 per cent. The 54-year-old said in Mandarin: "I've been working here for about 14 years and this is the worst business the shop has experienced."
The food centre used to be packed on weekends, but now, there are often empty tables, he added.
A Muslim food stall owner, Madam Ayu, 38, was also hoping for better business after the renovation. But she has been disappointed. She said: "It's much quieter than before."
Mr Timothy Koh, 34, a food and beverage company coordinator who patronises the centre twice a week, said: "It's much cleaner, so I find it more comfortable to eat here after the renovation.
"Ultimately, it's the food that draws customers, so the stallholders need not worry about bad business as regulars will keep coming back."
Owners can rent after lease expires
The food centre at Block 117, Aljunied Avenue 2, is one of four reverted to the Government this year. Its 20-year lease under the Stall Ownership Scheme expired on May 31.
The other three food centres were at 503, West Coast Drive; 207, New Upper Changi Road; and 20, Ghim Moh Road.
The scheme, introduced in 1994, saw 1,956 stalls in 15 hawker centres sold between 1994 and 1997. Under the scheme, the owners could sell, transfer or sublet their stalls.
Those who did not wish to buy their stalls were allowed to continue renting them. After the leases expire, the centres will continue to operate after repair, renovation, refurbishment or redevelopment is done. Existing stall owners can opt to continue but as a tenant paying a monthly rental.
From June 1, cooked food stallholders at Block 117, Aljunied Avenue 2, pay $192 for subsidised stalls (held by first-generation stall owners) and $1,340 to $1,500 for non-subsidised stalls.
In a reply to e-mail queries, the National Environment Agency said that as of Oct 1, 23 out of 79 cooked food stalls at Block 117, Aljunied Avenue 2, were vacant.
Its spokesman said all 23 vacant cooked food stalls were offered for tender in an exercise held from Oct 13 to 27, and 22 received bids. Nineteen stalls that received competitive bids were awarded to the successful bidders, who will start their tenancies from Dec 1.
The remaining four cooked food stalls have been offered for tender again in this month's exercise, which closes today, he said.
This article was first published on November 26, 2014. Get The New Paper for more stories.